Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.
Kitty Neptune is ready to school your ass. Photo by David Hawe.
Today’s edition of Drama Club is brought to you by sex and gender politics. A couple of very interesting shows opened in the city last week, both of which approach aspects of sexuality and gender identity from very different perspectives. In the girl corner, we have Sasha Von Bon Bon’s Neon Nightz, a two-woman burlesque(-ish) cabaret about the 90s Montreal strip club scene directed by outgoing Buddies Artistic Director David Oiye. Over at the boy’s club, there’s Darren Anthony’s Secrets of a Black Boy, heavily promoted as the male answer to his sister’s trey’s hugely successful Da Kink in My Hair, which promises to let us all know what it’s really like to be a black man in the city.
After the fold, we share our thoughts about these boys, girls, and the secrets they all have to tell.
Macho, macho men. Photo by Marc Lostracco.
The first thing you notice walking into The Chamber at Buddies is that it’s been transformed into a strip club, complete with live DJ, 12 foot poles, and crucifix-shaped catwalk. The shape is no accident. Eye sex columnist (and former stripper) Sasha Von Bon Bon’s Neon Nightz is essentially an essay, positing that the strip club scene of mid-’90s Montreal was as sacred as it was sleazy, providing the broken souls of the frozen city as much of a chance to confess their sins as commit new ones. This is achieved through a series of monologues spoken by Von Bon Bon describing various titty-bar tales, broken up by satirical stripteases mostly performed by her fellow Scandelle Kitty Neptune.
The design is gorgeous, Ms. Neptune is a funny and talented physical performer, and some of Von Bon Bon’s stories (particularly one involving a sweet old Quebecois couple who frequented a club she worked at) are fascinating. But there’s a few things about the show that don’t quite work. While the image of the stripper as whore/confessor is very interesting, the script never really gets to the “so what?” of the matter, preferring to bounce along to another striptease or anecdote. In one particularly frustrating moment, Sasha describes an hilarious-sounding striptease… and then doesn’t show it to us. And while it’s clear both ladies know their way around a stripper pole, the choreography is seriously lacking. One moment near the end of the show begins with a beautiful and utterly surprising piece of staging that then completely falls flat due to the half-assed dance moves that follow it. There’s a neat show in here somewhere, but it badly needs a dramaturge to make it a cohesive piece, rather than a disconnected string of ideas.
A heavily promoted two-week run at the Music Hall is a pretty impressive feat for a first-time playwright like Darren Anthony. Then again, how many first-time playwrights have a sister like trey anthony willing to produce their shows? The play is set in a Regent Park rec centre that’s about to be torn down to make way for condos. A group of five black men (plus DJ O-Nonymous, who provides the play’s soundtrack) decide to meet at the centre one last time for a game of dominoes. Scenes of the men playing their game are interspersed with dance and movement sequences, and monologues, in which the characters each reveal one of the titular “secrets.”
Secrets is a strange show to write a review of. It’s messy, scattered, unpolished, heavy-handed, and at times, offensive. And the audience loves it. At least the audience member who saw it with us last night did, as they laughed at every joke, clapped and cheered, and rose to their feet the second it was over to give the performers a big ovation. The Anthonys have talked about how they have endeavoured to reach an audience that is black, maybe hasn’t been to the theatre before, and definitely doesn’t see their stories reflected on stage. From what we can tell, they’ve succeeded in reaching that audience and telling a story they can relate to. But that doesn’t make it a great story. First of all, none of the “secrets” feel like secrets, because we’ve heard them all before. One guy prefers to sleep with white women, one guy has been a victim of racial profiling from the police, one guy’s brother was shot in a gang war, one guy is gay, but on the down-low. Isn’t this all a bit… old hat? It’s not that these issues aren’t real, or aren’t important, but they’ve been talked about before, and Secrets doesn’t add anything new to the conversation. Particularly bad is the gay subplot, which doesn’t even have the balls to acknowledge the fact that it is a gay subplot. It’s a wimp move from a show this macho.
Like Neon Nightz, Secrets is a show that could really use the help of a dramaturge. Why make a play where each character has an explosive secret that only gets revealed to the audience, and never to the other characters? A game of dominoes is not enough dramatic action for a night of theatre. But our biggest issue was the show’s use of misogynist and homophobic rhetoric without any apparent self-awareness. Director Kimahli Powell told Eye Weekly that it’s not his “job” to tell the audience whether these kinds of moments are wrong. Fine. But when you’ve got your audience laughing at blatantly sexist and homophobic jokes, or cheering along with the description of spousal violence, we think that’s effed up.
Neon Nightz runs until Oct 10.
Secrets of a Black Boy runs until Oct 3.