Playing now at the Toronto Fringe Festival, Who You Callin Black Eh? by Rita Shelton Deverell (RJ DEverell Productions) tells us the story of a young woman born in Atlantic Canada and now living in Toronto. As a bi-racial kid (white mother, black father), called Our Heroine, she is either not “Black Enough” or not “White Enough.” She is lonely and struggles to find her people.
Shadeism (also known as colourism) is a form of discrimination based on one’s skin tone. Like racism, it is also the result of slavery and colonialism. It reinforces the imperialistic idea of white supremacy.
In Who You Callin Black Eh? Shelton Deverell shows the courage to “call it like it is,” regarding both white and Black skin-based prejudices. The problem is that the script clearly aims to teach us lessons.
The characters are stereotypes, most of the scenes are just sketched out, and I could feel the rush to check off as many social issues as possible: racism, shadeism, tokenism, feminism, politicians’ lies, Obama, blonde Barbie dolls, trophy wives, lack of self-respect, bullying, and the list goes on.
For example, the play refers to a racial high school riot in Atlantic Canada as “a schoolyard fight with snowballs, the weapon of choice.”
As nothing else was mentioned, I decided to Google it. The horrifying nature of what happened in 1989 at Cole Harbour District High School in Halifax wasn’t even alluded to in the script.
The final message, literally spoken on stage, is the only one that could save humanity: any skin colour is fine and only together can we make the world a better place. I fully agree but when I go to the theatre I’d prefer to be shown rather than told.
This might come as a surprise after all of the above, but I loved Who You Callin Black Eh?! I’m sure the other viewers did too. Director Clara McBride, the talented, energetic, and passionate cast, and musician Osaze Dolabaille saved the script from patronizing its audience.
McBride made the stereotypical characters into even more of a stereotype: she gave them grotesque beast-like masks, which she designed and made herself. She also effectively avoided the “blackface” device by having the Black actor play a white character with a white mask and vice versa.
The characters with some traces of complexity, Our Heroine (always charming Chattrisse Dolabaille, the musician’s real-life daughter) and her parents (Jason Pilgrim and Jessica Bowmer), the BFF (also Bowmer) don’t have masks. I found that it helped the actors convincingly portray human beings and the audience empathizes with the characters.
Except for the lead and the MC, all the actors play multiple roles and do it very well. The opportunistic middle-class fiancé (Brendan Chandler) and his mother (Bowmer) in search of a Black wife to make him “look good” show us the depth of the ugliness of racism. All other masked Black or white characters do the same.
The commedia dell’arte style enriched with audience participation was a brilliant idea in my eyes. One concern, though: why does the energetic MC/Greek tragedy chorus (Iliana Spirakis) have a foreign, non-Canadian accent? Are immigrants less prone to discrimination?
As an immigrant with an accent, I’d love it to be true despite my doubts. But this is another issue, one not covered in the show. Go see it to enjoy the talent and passion for justice of a wonderful group of performers. I can’t praise them enough.
And leave chanting Shelton Deverell’s best lines: “I am who I am. I am a person, not a colour!”
- Who You Callin Black Eh? plays at the Factory Theatre Studio. (125 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warnings: realistic violence or gore; audience participation.
- The Fringe Festival considers this venue to be wheelchair-accessible.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Thursday July 4th, 10:15 pm
- Saturday July 6th, 6:45 pm
- Sunday July 7th, 1:00 pm
- Tuesday July 9th, 8:00 pm
- Thursday July 11th, 5:45 pm
- Friday July 12th, 4:15 pm
- Sunday July 14th, 12:15 pm
Photo of Chattrisse Dolabaille by Jim Plaxton
4 thoughts on “Who you Callin Black Eh? (RJ DEverell Productions) 2019 Toronto Fringe Review”
Three clarifications RE “Who you Callin Black Eh?”: I wrote the play, structured it, for Masks –and for the cross-racial casting, so glad it was appreciated. The Chorus Leader does say “(he race riots are real, they happended, and happened in Atlantic Canada” for ease of research.
Rita Shelton Deverell
I need to preface this comment with the fact that I understand that as a white woman I may be speaking out of turn here – I know this piece was written by a Black woman, with the intention of using masks and cross-cultural casting. And, as with so much art, I imagine much of her lived experience went into the writing of it. I also get the impression that, while the play was directed by a white woman, the playwright was involved in this production.
In fact, I have thought long and hard about whether to comment on this at all. Initially, I felt it just wasn’t my place to do so. But I have decided that I will.
But I have to say, I saw this yesterday, and I was deeply uncomfortable, not in the “art makes you question your biases” productive discomfort way. Instead, it was in the “this felt like I was watching blackface, and I didn’t like being asked to spout racist stuff at the stage” way. Maybe the latter was a way of exploring how we are all complicit in systemic racism? I don’t know. But it didn’t feel like that. It didn’t particularly feel like it moved the story forward any more than it would have just to have the people on stage do it. Instead, the only person in the audience enthusiastically participating was the 7-year-old beside who was just excited about participating in a play.
And, I understand that the theory was since a Black actor was wearing a white mask to play a white man, then it shouldn’t matter about the white actor wearing a Black mask to play a Black woman. And that whenever anyone was wearing a mask, they were playing a caricature. I understand that the theory behind this was that both would be caricatures, neither would be characters, same for white as Black and so all is well. I understand the theory.
But here’s where that theory breaks down for me. There isn’t a centuries-old tradition of using ‘whiteface’ to mock and belittle and put down white people. It hasn’t been used as one of many tools of oppression disguised as entertainment for hundreds of years. No matter how much we want it to suddenly be equal because a Black person is wearing a white mask, it never will be. Black people continue to be a marginalized group, white people continue to be a privileged group. And so, to me at least, it just reads as blackface.
As I said before, I understand that as a white woman I may be entirely out of my lane when I speak to this, and I do understand that the playwright is a Black woman who was involved in the production. I can only speak to how it felt to me.
I would be very interested in hearing how it felt for Black folks who saw the show.
note: This comment has been edited, it previously identified the playwright as bi-racial, but she graciously commented and corrected me to tell me she is Black
Thank you for this Megan. I’m bi-racial but I don’t like this play- I do not hate my Blackness to such an extent to call myself a “Goddess” and not what I truly am, a woman of Black heritage. There was literal Blackface and this play was a disgusting performance of anti-black racism. So much my Black friend was visibly upset when we were made to chant things like “white purity” and other bullshit. I saw other Black people visibly upset.
They even had the white actress dress up as a Black male youth on the Toronto subway and use racist Black slang in an “accent” to harass the lead.
This was the most anti-black and self hatred based art piece I’ve seen in years. I was ashamed to even be in the room, so much so I’ve sought other media and friends to express how fucked this was.
A further clarification Ms. Mooney: I am Black, and have never self-identified in any other way, ever. I have been Black and female ever since birth in 1945, 74 years ago, in Houston (Texas) Negro Hospital.
Beyond that, I appreciate the serious work done by Mooney on Theatre, and was of course gratified that Who You Callin Black Eh? was your critic’s favourite pick.
Rita Shelton Deverell, the Black playwright
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