An honest dramedy about black lives and gentrification on stage at the Passe Muraille in Toronto
Playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille until November 20 is Secrets of a Black Boy, an honest yet endearing, funny look at the lives of young black men living in Regent Park while facing gentrification. This collection of stories explores topics from police brutality and racism, to sexuality and domestic violence, and arrives on the heels of the shocking US presidential election — which drives home the relevance that these stories have in the here and now.
The framework for these very personal stories to take place is one final game of dominoes played among the numerous packed boxes piled around the remains of the local community centre before its permanent closure. Five young men gather for this game — Sheldon (Al St. Louis), Jakes (Troy Crossfield), Sean (Julien Hyacinthe), Jerome (Mark Sparks), and Biscuit (Samson Brown).
Biscuit is the youngest of the five, and the personal tales begin as a way of educating him on ways of interacting with women, appreciating music with a message, and how not to perpetuate gun violence when Sheldon discovers the new accessory Biscuit is carrying.
Though the premise for the show is the response from the black community in areas like Regent Park to revitalization and gentrification from more affluent communities, what Secrets of a Black Boy explores is more the need for young men within the black community to explore their own vulnerability and talk among themselves.
By breaking down the need for hyper masculinity, they manage to help each other come to terms with watching an older brother get gunned down, racial preferences in dating, admitting a romantic love for another man, and the choice to become a member of law enforcement in the face of police brutality.
Secrets of a Black Boy started in 2007 with a series of monologues and personal stories handed to director Kimahli Powell, who worked with playwright Darren Anthony over the years to forge it into a cohesive narrative. The production blends these stories with music (played live by DJ O-Nonymous), dance numbers and projections that often give the show a music video vibe that I found added to the narrative rather than detract from it.
Secrets of a Black Boy is a very powerful production to see, the stories are heartfelt and real as are the emotions present throughout, the anger, sadness, and frustration. There is true catharsis happening on that stage and it is indeed palpable. You can’t watch this show and not be affected and moved by it. The cast here have done outstanding work in bringing these very personal accounts to life and Powell has provided great groundwork for allowing the cast to explore.
I enjoyed the projections Laura Warren used to light up the towering boxes on stage, impressive thought-provoking imagery that did fine work in punctuating the stories being told on stage. I also enjoyed the movement and how much of the space was used during the show — from the overhead lofts to the thick of the audience, it elevated the show from being just bodies on a stage.
The only downside that I saw was what appeared to be a tonal hum that came from the audio and was present throughout a good portion of the first act. It took away from the dialogue happening on stage. Thankfully it was soon sorted out.
The topic of gentrification bookend this production and it indeed drives home why this topic is vitally important now as Black and other POC communities increasingly become the targets of racism and hate crimes.
Secrets of a Black Boy is uncomfortable in the best possible way. It opens the floodgates for frank and honest discussion. Many of the performances during the show’s run are followed by an open forum talk with the creators and cast and hanging around post show to listen and take part in these talks is highly encouraged.
- Secrets of a Black Boy is playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave) until November 20, 2016.
- Performances run Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm with weekend matinees at 2 pm.
- Tickets are $38 general admission, $33 for seniors, $25 for artsworkers, and $17 for those under 30. A small number of PWYC tickets are available at the door for matinees.
- Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (416) 504 7529.
- Audience advisory: Strong language and depictions of violence.
Photo of DJ O-Nonymous, Samson Brown, Troy Crossfield, Al St. Louis, and Mark Sparks by Marc Lostracco.