Review: The Negroes are Congregating (Piece of Mine Arts Production/Theatre Passe Muraille)

photo of a man and a woman facing each other - we see the man's face, and the profile of the woman - Photo of Christopher Bautista and Uche Ama in The Negroes are Congregating provided by Sean Dean Brown

A much-needed wake-up call on the realities of Black existence

The Negroes are Congregating opens with a sermon and ends with a dialogue. In between, the three-person cast uses a series of sketches to say all the things Black folks do not usually say in front of folks who aren’t Black.

The sketches are a mix of scenes and spoken word pieces, often illustrated with movement. Many of the sketches have the audience shaking with laughter. One makes hilarious use of audience participation. A concluding sketch is horrifying and leaves behind a dense silence. Written and directed by Natasha Adiyana Morris, all of the narratives are deftly woven and clearly forged from the crucible of lived experience.

Uche Ama, Christopher Bautista, and Christopher Parker bring to life a range of characters who are known to the Black community. Christopher Parker was chillingly familiar as the bombastic, righteous, evangelical preacher of the Black church. I felt both seen and called out by Uche Ama’s performance as the office worker who has just plain had it (on the inside) with Becky’s ignorant questions about her hair. Christopher Bautista was the embodiment of the hotep mofo I have wanted to smack at a Reggae night gone horribly wrong.

I nearly fell off my seat laughing as audience members came forward to be contestants on the “How Black Are You?” show. Apparently, I’m not actually Black because the questions were hard y’all. Neither were the three Black audience members who came forward because they were stumped too. In a surprising twist, a fourth Black audience member scooped the win by calling out correct responses from her seat.

The only aspect of the performance that seemed somewhat puzzling was the repeated appearance of Winnie Mandela. At various intervals throughout the show, the iconic figure emerges from the balcony, clad in resplendent African fabric, to expound on reparations and the repatriation of South African land.

The scenes play as though they are excerpts from Mandela’s actual speeches, and the talking points are excellent. Nevertheless, it felt somewhat out of place, especially as a recurring bit, given that the rest of the material focuses on the contemporary, North American context. I had to wonder if this was externally-sourced filler. Winnie Mandela never refers to herself or her husband by name, and it was clear from a post-show question that at least one twentysomething audience member had no idea who she was supposed to be.

Despite the many highlights of the performance, it is not the show itself that is staying with me.

One of producer Tory De Four’s goals is that the post-show discussion lasts longer than the performance. The one I went to certainly accomplished this. The performance I saw was the night after a “Black Out” performance – a performance exclusively for a Black audience. I had hoped to attend that one, but it didn’t work with my schedule. Although I didn’t get to experience it first-hand, we talked about it a great deal in the post-show discussion.

Cast members explained that the decision to host a Black-only performance received some push back. They told us about one woman who had wanted to attend with her Black friend but was only free the night of the “Black Out” and was “very hurt” she couldn’t go.

Piece of Mine Arts has already mounted the show in several cities around the world. These performers clearly have very intimate knowledge of the material. They described a certain alchemy that occurred during the Black Out performance that wasn’t present at others.

They got laughs for punchlines that had never landed before. Audience members were more willing to engage with the call and response practice that is encouraged at the start of the show. Viewers felt free to express their feelings about events on stage with their bodies and voices. The performers found liberation in this.

It sounded as though the Blacks-only performances achieved their goals. It is unfortunate that some people’s feelings were hurt by Black liberation, but it was clearly a worthwhile experience.

The Negroes are Congregating will be eye-opening for some and cathartic for others. It is a much-needed wake-up call on the realities of Black existence in a society we fondly think of as progressive for everyone.

Details:

  • The Negroes are Congregating is playing until March 14, 2020 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue)
  • Showtimes are 7:30 PM on February 29, March 3-7 & March 10-14, with additional matinees at 2 PM on March 1, 7 & 14.
  • The Prelude, a preshow chat with Artistic Director Marjorie Chan and a community member is at 7 PM on March 11. An audio-described performance is on March 13. A relaxed performance is on March 14.
  • Tickets prices range from $17-38. General admission: $38, Senior: $33, Arts Worker: $25, Under 30: $17.
  • Tickets are available online.

Photo of Christopher Bautista and Uche Ama provided by Sean Dean Brown