b current's afteRock Plays bring two promising solo shows to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Gangsta rap and Philippines folk dance have taken over Buddies in Bad Times. Toronto’s ever-inclusive LGBT theatre is currently hosting a pair of solo shows from the black-diaspora-serving b current company: a gritty “hip hopera” by Sébastien Heins and a saucy slice of autobiography by self-described “Filipino-Spanish-Chinese-Indian queer single mom” Catherine Hernandez.
The two pieces make up b current’s afteRock Plays, a showcase of new work originally tested in the company’s rock.paper.sistahz festival. Heins’s Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera is the more substantial of the pair—a 70-minute urban saga with a Cain and Abel theme. Hernandez’s The Femme Playlist, a mere 45 minutes, is lighter and less ambitious, depending mainly on some funny writing and the performer’s vibrant stage presence.
Heins, one of the founders of the critically adored Outside the March company, takes his cue from the biblical tale of quarrelling brothers for his story of twins Eliot and Julian. Superstar rappers under the aliases Cash Money and Money Pussy, the two are at the height of their fame when a dispute over Eliot’s sleazy onstage antics leads to an acrimonious split. Without giving away the plot, tragedy ensues, followed by incarceration and redemption.
Heins, doing an amusing Jekyll-and-Hyde shtick, embodies both the irresponsible, drug-fuelled Eliot and the sweet-natured Julian. He also plays a string of secondary characters, including Eliot’s neglected girlfriend, the duo’s unflappable manager, and—in an extended flashback—their young parents. The score includes original numbers rapped by Heins, as well as a soundtrack of familiar hip-hop hits such as Wale’s “Ambition.” Director Karin Randoja’s production mimics a concert setting, with a back wall of blinding lights and two screens flanking the stage on which designer Jonathan Inksetter throws various scene-setting projections.
The story plays out like an elaborate music video, but Randoja’s restlessly kinetic staging and Heins’s non-stop shape-shifting at times obscure the underlying drama—you feel as if the relationship between the siblings hasn’t been fully explored. Still, Heins’s intensely physical performance is a joy to watch, with so much intricate movement that the show almost qualifies as a dance drama.
Dance also plays a key role in Hernandez’s The Femme Playlist. Early in this odyssey of self-discovery, the actor, playing herself as a young Filipina, learns the graceful steps of the entangled princess in the traditional Singkil dance. Later, as a woman, she encounters the raw, liberating exhibitionism of modern burlesque. Both are milestones in Hernandez’s journey from a “queer hatchling” to a full-on “sexy and proud, slutty and loud” multi-ethnic lesbian.
Most of the stops along the route—or “tunes” on her “playlist,” to adopt the show’s underdeveloped conceit—are highly comical. There’s a preteen, Star Wars–obsessed Hernandez masturbating to fantasies of Princess Leia. (Whoever thought the phrase “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi” was orgasm-inducing?) And a schoolgirl Hernandez being taught sex ed by Catholic nuns—always good for a laugh. But there are also some rocky stretches on the road, including a budding screen-acting career that finds her playing offensive Asian stereotypes, and a dark detour into a disastrous heterosexual relationship.
Hernandez happily plays with, and then demolishes, those stereotypes. But like Heins, she’s a better actor-singer-dancer than she is a playwright. To use her own playlist-as-necklace metaphor, she needs a stronger narrative on which to thread her vignettes.
Director Gein Wong has Hernandez ranging over a carefully detailed set by Jade Lee Hoy in which the play’s various locales—home, school, dressing room—are ringed like an archipelago of islands around the stage. As was the case with Hernandez’s 2007 play Singkil—which, you guessed it, also dealt with that symbolic folk dance—The Femme Playlist isn’t fully realized. But at 45 minutes, it has plenty of room to grow.