Tawiah Ben M’Carthy’s play returns to Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times as part of its 40th season
Tawiah Ben M’Carthy’s Obaaberima, currently playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre as part of their 40th season, is a visceral and emotional triumph. With fierce honesty, M’Carthy takes us on a journey that spans continents and weaves gender, race and sexuality into a rich and colourful tapestry of self-discovery.
In prison on the eve of his release, a young man from Ghana, Agyeman, prepares to re-enter the world by telling us his story. The characters and environments that he calls forth are so compelling, you almost forget that we began in a prison cell. The dark bars of the set lurk in the background, though, as a reminder that his story will eventually come back to that cell and the event that put him in it.
Agyeman takes us back to his childhood in Ghana where he discovers an interest in wearing his mother’s dresses and sneaking secretive glances of himself in the mirror. He is teased by other children for being an “Obaaberima”—a derogatory term that means something like “girly boy” (Obaa: Woman, Oberima: Man)—and takes refuge in the shop of an older man, a dressmaker.
Over the next few years, his relationship to this man grows, as does his appreciation of clothing and the power that lies in the attitude with which it is worn. It is under the loving guidance of this mentor that Agyeman develops the female aspect of his personality. He also becomes infatuated with a local boy his own age; this relationship begins to strengthen Agyeman’s sense of his own masculinity.
M’Carthy perfectly captures the strange way in which our sense of who we are changes with the varied expectations and provocations of the people we encounter, especially those we love. His evocative text and expressive body language captures both the beauty and terror contained in our complex identities, as well as the empowerment that comes from fully realizing all our disparate aspects.
As Agyeman makes a life for himself in Canada, he continues to explore the many different versions of himself with an assortment of lovers. With genuine humour, M’Carthy deftly conveys an array of diverse characters and erotic adventures, each one contributing to some vital aspect of his personality.
Evalyn Parry’s direction is deceptively simple and reveals a firm trust in M’Carthy’s ability to hold our attention. The production employs some minimal lighting effects to help with mood and transitions, most of it very subtle. Especially nuanced is the way lighting designer Michelle Ramsay lets warmth and colour creep in at key moments. The focus is always on M’Carthy’s layered, sensual and intense portrayal. He’s a persuasive storyteller and every breath, line and gesture feels significant and truthful.
Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison’s percussive live score, present throughout, is masterfully incorporated. Some transitions are punctuated with an overt beat, but more frequently—and perfectly—it seems to delicately echo the rhythms of M’Carthy’s pulse, rising and falling with his physical and emotional movements.
When he finally reveals the event that landed Agyeman in prison, M’Carthy delivers a simple yet thrillingly cathartic moment. It is a heartbreaking collapse followed by an intense eruption—a hypnotic demonstration of all the pent up emotions that have been building in him up to that moment.
Obaaberima resonates as a testament to mythic ideas made flesh. M’Carthy’s does more than just display diverse character traits; he convinces you that an individual can sincerely be many people, can defy and embrace gender simultaneously.
I left the theatre feeling humbled, inspired and awe-struck.
- Obaaberima plays until December 9, 2018 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.)
- Shows run Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, with a Sunday matinee at 2:30pm.
- Tickets are $20 to $40, with Pay-What-You-Can tickets available (see show page for details)
- Tickets can be purchased online or by phone (416.975.8555)
Photo of Tawiah M’Carthy by Jeremy Mimnagh