Lwam Ghebrehariat and Shannon Perreault star in Homegrown. Photo courtesy of the Homegrown Project.
Everyone from the Prime Minister’s Office on down to the Toronto Sun seems to have an opinion on Homegrown, a new one-act play at this year’s SummerWorks. Homegrown stars Lwam Ghebrehariat as Shareef Abdulhaleem, one of the men arrested as part of the Toronto 18 bombing plot—and that’s about all those outraged about the play knew.
After seeing the play ourselves—something most of the pundits didn’t do—Torontoist met with playwright Catherine Frid and director Beatriz Pizano to talk about the play and the unusual attention it’s received.
Torontoist: Of everyone who’s commented on the story in the media [before Thursday’s opening], only Michael Rubenfeld had read or seen it.
Catherine Frid: Yes, he’d read an earlier version of the play.
The Globe and Mail clarified that you had never said it was a “sympathetic portrayal” of a terrorist.
CF: The Toronto Star said that [it was], and the Toronto Sun picked that up and ran with it, and it…went viral.
Beatriz Pizano: Poor Lwam! To see himself on the front page, being called the devil! We laugh about it now, but at the time, he was in shock. But yes, no one really knew anything about the script or the play.
Your cast included a third year law student, and actors previously involved in activist and socially relevant theatre, like Keith Barker.
BP: Aluna Theatre [which co-produced Homegrown] usually tries to match up experienced performers with emerging artists, and this cast was so committed. When this stupidity started coming out in the papers, the beautiful thing was that it [reinforced] that what we were doing was important, to start a conversation—this is what art should be about.
Was it a bonding experience for the cast to have this political firestorm open up as you were preparing to open?
BP: Yes, but it was also nerve-wracking. [At Thursday’s opening], we didn’t know if there were going to be people there protesting—but instead, we had a full house.
We interviewed Michael Rubenfeld the day before the first Toronto Sun article came out, and he was saying that the two themes he wanted to push for the festival this year were politics and play. With politics at least, that’s certainly been the case!
BP: Aluna has spent the last few years doing plays about political issues in other countries, like our trilogy about women and war in Columbia, but what attracted me to this play was that I wanted to do something uniquely Canadian. People think that there aren’t serious political issues in this country, but that’s so wrong.
CF: That’s the real controversy. There are so few plays that are critical or questioning about Canada, and I think that’s why there’s been this media storm.
BP: We believe so strongly in this country, and the freedoms it has to offer. Regardless of what I personally think of [Abdulhaleem], this was a story that needed to be told.
Cate, have you considered mailing a copy of the play’s script to the Prime Minister’s Office, and saying, “Read it for yourself, see if you think these issues are relevant”?
CF: No—I haven’t. Though, I know Yann Martel hasn’t had much success at getting the Prime Minister to read books he’s sent him.
So, Cate, now that we’ve seen the play; you’re in it, as a main character. Was there much difficulty in divorcing yourself from the character, as a playwright?
CF: It was very difficult. I credit Bea with helping me a lot. I’d originally written the play as a fictional narrative, but when we work-shopped it last summer, we both felt it wasn’t getting at the story. Bea told me, “It’s your story—put yourself in it.” So I did, and she’s pushed me hard ever since then.
BP: For me, politics is personal. Cate was telling me about how [meeting with Shareef and researching the play] was affecting her relationships, and I was going “That’s interesting! That’s the powerful part!”
CF: So it was a great opportunity to craft it, with a good dramaturge like Bea, and the actors…plus the help of some very generous patrons—because this play was not funded by the federal government in any way.
When you first started to visit Abdulhaleem, what was your motivation—was it the legal issues, since you have a background in law?
CF: No. Plays often take place in confined spaces, and I was really interested in researching a prison; I wasn’t interested in the “Toronto 18” at all. I knew about Shareef because my ex-husband had been his high school teacher, and he was the only connection I had to a jail. So, I asked to come visit him, telling him I was doing research for a play. “Not necessarily about you,” I told him, and I really didn’t think it would be about him. Then he told me how long he’d been in solitary confinement, and the more I found out about him on the internet, the more I thought, “This is the story, right here.”
So if your husband had taught someone imprisoned for drug possession, we’d be seeing a very different play.
CF, laughing: I kind of stumbled into it, I guess.
So, the courtroom scenes–those are word for word what happened at the trial?
CF: Not everything. The judge is, from his judgment, but the cross examination was very compressed. We had to leave so many details out.
BP: The first thing that really got to me was the letter [Abdulhaleem] wrote to the festival jury [in support of the play].
The letter he dictated to you, Cate, during a visit?
CF: I never did get that letter—he said the letter probably wouldn’t come, and I thought, “I doubt that,” but it never arrived, though he mailed it.
In the Globe and Mail article, you were quoted as saying you felt angry at him. Can you go into that a little more?
CF: Well, what I said was that I felt a wide range of things. I felt frustrated at what he went through, because I didn’t think it was fair, and yes, I’m also angry at him. How can you not be angry at someone who knew about a bomb plot and didn’t do anything to stop it?
In the play, Shareef comes across as a very naive person, thinking he’s doing something good. “I could keep it a smaller bomb, and get them to detonate it early in the morning,” that sort of thinking.
CF: That’s what he claims, so that’s what his character relays in the play. Again, the goal of the play is to raise these questions, for people to analyze for themselves–not to automatically assume that these guys are all monsters, and not people. Even though Shareef has been convicted of terrorism, he’s a human being, and I think his story should be told.
This is the first work of art to come out about the Toronto 18, yes?
BP: Well, there’s the documentary by David Weingarten, which was very good, about the political aspects of the trial.
CF: But we wanted to make this more of a personal story, and what I didn’t realize, until the controversy came up…I didn’t think there were any taboo subjects left in Canada. The way that we’re talking about a terrorist is important.
BP: Aluna is working on a new show called The Architecture of Terrorism, and the research of trying to define what terrorism is….There’s thousands of pages of political scientists’ writing, trying to come up with a definition for something that promotes fear. And just like with war, there’s a lot of money and business that goes into it—we just saw that here in Toronto, with a billion dollars spent on the G20.
It’s very easy to justify these things when the issue is national security, which is so important. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question them.
BP: If we don’t understand the underlying issues, how can we deal with it? In many countries where terrorism is, they can’t have a discussion about terrorism; in a country like Canada, we can have this discussion.
So, in Shareef’s case, regardless of what we may think about him, he had a right to a speedy trial.
BP: To be in solitary and segregation for three years? Terrible.
The play makes it clear that people would have mental issues after being treated that way for that long.
CF: They’re well-documented. The long term effects of solitary confinement are confusion and cognitive problems.
Cate, speaking as a trained lawyer—is there a justification for the length of the delay, due to the unique circumstances of the case? After all, the Crown hadn’t dealt with a domestic terrorist case like this since the FLQ Crisis.
CF: The case, like the story, is complicated–far more complicated than you can put on stage.
To be found guilty of terrorism, you have to be found to be part of a terrorist group. So, all these guys [the Toronto 18] had done different things; it wasn’t like if the three of us, sitting together here, said, “Let’s rob a bank—you do this, and I’ll do this, and you drive.” It wasn’t like that at all. One guy knew a guy, who knew a couple of other guys…and some of them, who had just introduced people—all these guys, they all got roped in together when they were arrested.
So their cases were very different. Of course, each accused needs his own lawyer, and what happened—and again, we didn’t have a way to go into this level of detail with the short version of the play—is, they have all kinds of pre-trial motions. Before you go to trial, both [sides] are trying to get out information. And one accused would be trying to pull and use that information, while another might be contesting whether it should come out. So you have the accused [and their lawyers] fighting each other, because what helps one person’s case might hurt another’s.
What it came down to was that there were nine guys and their lawyers, all fighting the Crown and CSIS (which had its own interests, much different from the Crown’s sometimes), and fighting each other, as they all had different interests at pre-trial motions. And that went into the second, and even third year. The only reason why many of these [legal challenges] were resolved then is that so many of them broke down and started pleading guilty, so there were fewer “players.”
So it was those complexities, and the unusual way the case was spun out, with all the people that were involved that the Crown had to pull together as a group—because if you don’t have a group, you don’t have terrorism.
The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Calgary Sun all have reviews out now, and even the Toronto Sun did interview people coming out of the show, so hopefully, people will start talking about the actual content of the play, not what they guessed it might be about.
CF: An informed discussion–that’s all we wanted. When people come out talking about the play, whether they agreed with it or not, that’s great.
BP: One of the speeches [in the play] I fall more and more in love with every time I hear is Cate’s speech about Canada, and how if we don’t question our government, we get exactly the government we deserve. Like the trial, democracy is messy, but it’s important.