Review: Black Boys (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre)

Black Boys is “campy, joyful, and riotous”, on stage at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto

After a successful nation-wide tour, the 2016 hit Black Boys returns to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. I never saw the first production, but it certainly left an impression on the theatre scene. All of us who missed it were appropriately disappointed. The Saga Collectif has returned with their exploration of queer male Blackness and, with it, your chance to partake in this dynamic and provocative experience before its two-week run is over. 

At its core, this is a celebration of Black bodies and identity. So much of the show’s power lies in the way it demands that you engage with it. It demands that you acknowledge each of them as individuals with wildly different energies and attitudes. It demands that you engage with intellect one moment, with inhibition the next.

The show consists, primarily, of poetic vignettes where the three performers convey experiences of awareness and acknowledgement of their bodies, their culture, their identity. Sometimes there is a clear story being related, sometimes there is movement designed to evoke those experiences. I found it difficult, at first, to connect to these choreographed bits, but that has a lot to do with my particular sensibilities. I rarely respond to interpretive choreography.

Early on, the show disarms us with some very sudden and prolonged nudity. He enthusiastically draws our attention to the fact of his nakedness and—by explicitly making it a thing, by acknowledging our potential discomfort or attraction—welcomes us into the space of the show. It is the humour and candour of the episode that broke down the first wall of resistance I hadn’t even been aware I had constructed.

Drawing from their own individual experiences and sharing them as a collective, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben M’Carthy and Thomas Olajide perform this intimate and exploratory show which they created in collaboration with choreographer, Virgilia Griffith, and director, Jonathan Seinen. The performers frequently address the audience directly and reference the show itself and its creation.

It is those moments of self-reflection that stand out most to me. In particular, and perhaps my favourite scene, occurs as tensions flare over the use of the hymn Amazing Grace. The most dynamic fireworks occur here, where an argument about the history and context of a song becomes an intensely heated debate about history itself—a collision of personal and communal histories that threaten to tear the trio apart.

I’d like to share a very specific experience I had with here because I think it reveals just how potent the show is. There is a specific performer—Stephen Jackman-Torkoff—that I would like to discuss. At first, I was alienated by his manic outbursts, his seemingly childlike insistence that any and every impulse be acted upon. With his chaotic, almost harrowing rendition of Amazing Grace, I began to realize something: he disturbed me. I could not predict what he was going to do or say at any given moment. I was afraid he might burst through that perceived boundary between performer and audience and leap into us, demanding more attention than I was willing to give.

And then it hit me: that is very much the point. His energy is not meant to be contained; he is not meant to be contained. His energy, M’Carthy’s energy, Olijide’s energy—distinct yet combined—are what makes this so vital and necessary. The chance to experience those energies is a gift.

By the time Torkoff invited somebody from the audience onstage with him, he had already won me over, and their beautiful interaction was, I think, the most moving moment for me.

And so, it got me. Black Boys got me. It is campy, joyful and riotous. It is politically-charged and sexy. By the end, I was quite sad it was over.

See it before its gone. Black Boys is very special.

Details:

  • Black Boys plays until March 11, 2018 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street)
  • Performances run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm, with a Sunday matinee at 2:30 pm
  • Tickets are $30 to $40, with $20 rush seats and PWYC on the Sunday matinee
  • Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office by in person, by phone (416.975.8555) or online

Photo of Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Thomas Olijide and Tawiah M’Carthy by Jeremy Mimnagh