Lwam Ghebrehariat reprised his role as convicted Toronto 18 accomplice Shareef Abdelhaleem in Toronto’s reading of Homegrown, part of a nationwide fundraiser for the SummerWorks festival.
Up until the morning of July 31, 2010, Catherine Frid’s Homegrown was just another one of the 42 plays produced by The SummerWorks Theatre Festival that year. But mere days before the show was to open, it was thrust into the media’s spotlight under the headline “Sympathy for the Devil.” Suddenly, Homegrown was no longer just a developing piece about a woman’s relationship with an accused terrorist associated with the Toronto 18—it became the city’s symbol for the battle between artists and Conservative politics. This past Friday, almost a year later, an event to recuperate the losses of SummerWorks’s unanticipated denial of government funding (commonly believed to be in direct response to the play itself), made Homegrown all of Canada’s.
“In theatres across the country tonight comes our answer. The very play that frightened everyone from Sun journalists to radio hacks to members of the PMO is getting an airing,” playwright Michael Healey wrote in a letter read out loud by Trevor Schwellnus, artistic producer of Aluna Theatre and one of Homegrown‘s original producers, at the Berkeley Theatre on Friday evening. It was one of 14 staged readings of Homegrown taking place nationwide, involving over 70 companies from coast to coast. Initiated by Western Edge Theatre in Nanaimo, BC and a call from Healey and Toronto’s Wrecking Ball Theatre, the campaign to broadcast Homegrown across Canada was intended to be both a fundraiser as well as a display of solidarity among theatre-makers against what is perceived as the latest attack from the Conservatives against artistic expression.
Considering that the withdrawal of funding and the following uproar from the artistic community allegedly stems directly from the play’s content, many have been quick to judge (either in support or disgust) despite not fully understanding what the play is actually about. Torontonians are lucky to have an insider viewpoint on the material—after all, they were called the Toronto 18, and Toronto audiences had the opportunity to see the SummerWorks production at the time of the controversy last year. Citizens (be they arts supporters or not) in other cities had no such accessibility to the subject matter, and now that Homegrown has entered the national stage, it’s vital they do. Friday’s national readings haven’t only raised a buck or two for SummerWorks or made Homegrown the most-produced play of the moment, but they also let Canadians who didn’t see the production hear the now infamous script, before coming to a conclusion—not that that stopped the PMO at all last year, who accused the play of “glorifying terrorism” without seeing or reading it.
Shannon Perrault as Cate and Lwam Ghebrehariat as Shareef.
“If this is a terrorist play, then Shakespeare’s Richard III is a serial murderer play,” said actor Lwam Ghebrehariat who played the convicted terrorist-in-question, Shareef Abdelhaleem, in the way that both Richard III and Homegrown revolve around characters who have admittedly done wrong, but, in our opinion, show them as people rather than one-dimensional villains. What may be perceived as sympathy is Frid’s personal account of her own complicated relationship with Abdelhaleem. But from where we sat, at no point does Shareef come across as “glorified,”—more as a man who made wrong move after wrong move who has no one and nothing to blame but his own inability to see the larger picture. While critiques on the quality of the script are varied, so are the opinions that there is anything the least bit controversial or provocative at all about Homegrown. But since members of the press and the Prime Minister’s Office were able to condemn the play without seeing it, it’s clear the media frenzy that followed its production was about much more than Homegrown itself.
“I think the media has had a lot of fun with it as an entertainment piece,” said Ghebrehariat, voicing the sentiment shared by many of the actors onstage, who saw the play as a sacrificial lamb used to spark an ideological war between the government and Canadian artists. “I was shocked, it was pretty disillusioning for me about the media. I know about sensationalism and all that stuff… but it was front page, and they had no idea. They hadn’t even seen it,” said actress Shannon Perrault, who played Cate (based on Catherine Frid herself).
Artistic producer of Aluna Theatre, Trevor Schwellnus reads a letter from Michael Healy.
Well, now media members and theatregoers across the country have had their chance to do just that—whether or not they took it up is still unknown. We can say that in Toronto at least, with little advanced notice, an unfortunate scheduling conflict with the closing weekend of the Toronto Fringe Festival and perhaps even a distaste for the script, attendance wasn’t quite as high as we expected for such a prestigious cause. But that’s not to say that Toronto artists haven’t prepped for battle, now that the stage is set for an epic expression vs. censorship showdown, whether Homegrown was a worthy catalyst or not.
Schwellnus says he even welcomes pressure from higher-ups. “It’s a challenge I like to sink my teeth into, we can’t shut up about this stuff.”
With the SummerWorks Theatre Festival now only a few weeks away, we’re sure we’ve only seen a taste of the artillery that’s to come.
Photos by Carly Maga/Torontoist.