Erased: Billy & Bayard (Queer Songbook Orchestra) 2017 SummerWorks Review

Photo of Erased Billy and Bayard“What year is it?” The innocuous questions opens Erased: Billy and Bayard by Queer Songbook Orchestra playing at the Toronto 2017 SummerWorks Festival.

Its the uncertainty in the answer that is at the heart of the show as it digs into the lives and accomplishments of musicians and Civil Rights activists Billy Strayhorn and Bayard Rustin.

They were two queer, black men whose lives may or may not have crossed paths but shared similarities nonetheless. Whether it was in their musical talent, their position as black men fighting for Civil Rights, and their position as queer men within that same movement, Strayhorn and Rustin made significant impact on musical culture in the United States.

Erased draws the past and present together in the form of a concert. The music was always present, the orchestra set on-stage, giving us glimpses of Strayhorn’s and Rustin’s work through interludes of specific pieces. I could see the audience around me settle in to listen, relaxing into their seats to just let it wash over them.

Andrew Broderick and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff function as hosts, playing a combination of themselves, Strayhorn, Rustin, and various historical figures as they read from personal documents, memoirs, and instruct the audience on the personal and political lives of the musicians.

I have to say, I adored the hosts. Broderick and Jackman-Torkoff were such a joy to watch. Not only were they absolutely charming and energetic, genuinely enjoying the material, they were also gifted improvisors.

Every so often they would reach a certain quote or a specific detail about either musician and come out with little joyful comments. Even better, they were constantly playing off each other, having scripted and unscripted exchanges that were wonderful to watch. They even managed to bring the audience into their conversations without missing a beat.

Their chemistry, combined with their enthusiasm, made it easy to get really invested in the endless amount of information dumped on the crowd. And there was a lot of information

Don’t get me wrong, I soaked in as much as I could but at times enthusiasm overcame clarity and Jackman-Torkoff, in particular, would speed read in excitement. There were a lot of little details, I think, that were especially important that I wanted to hear.

Still, it’s hard to fault someone who clearly loved sharing their knowledge and curiosity with the audience.

Slipped in among the historical context is the contemporary experience of young, queer, black men. The history, the experiences that Strayhorn and Rustin lived still resonate today. Erased: Billy and Bayard never let its audience forget the fact that the past for many people is not, in fact, the past–hence the question: what year is it?

It’s a shame that Erased: Billy and Bayard was only one night because it was a show worth catching.

Details:

Erased: Billy & Bayard played at the Factory Theatre Mainspace. (125 Bathurst Street)

SummerWorks tickets are now Pay What You Decide at $15, $25, or $35, whichever suits your budget. All tickets are general admission and there are no limits to any price level. Tickets are available at the performance venue (cash only), online and in person at the SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street). Open August 1-13 from 10am-7pm. Cash and credit accepted.

Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 7 shows.

Audience Advisory: Be advised that this show contains mature subject matter.

Photo of Erased: Billy & Bayard by Casie Brown and edited by Jonathan Broderick.