Exposing Root Causes with Small Axe
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Exposing Root Causes with Small Axe

Project: Humanity's verbatim theatre piece examining homophobia and racism—and the ways they intersect— steps boldly outside the format's usual bounds.

The cast of Small Axe  Photo by Dahlia Katz

The cast of Small Axe. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Small Axe
The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West )
Runs until February 1

Last week saw issues of racism and representation discussed and hotly debated in the Canadian media. MacLeans published an incendiary article labelling Winnipeg “Canada’s most racist city” and an op-ed entitled “Canada’s Race Problem? It’s Even Worse Than America’s.” Around the same time, Maclean‘s also published an op-ed defending the recent use of blackface on stage in Montreal, and so, too, did the Globe and Mail.

Both of these op-eds were written from positions of privilege: the outlets that published them are established and prestigious, and both writers are white and male. Patrick Lagace, who authored the Globe piece, attempted to circumscribe the discussion even more: he focused on fellow Globe writer Kelly Nestruck, who had condemned the blackface practice in an earlier column, saying Nestruck was “the only commentator of note” to give him a “cross-check to the face,” and setting Nestruck up as a “francophobic” straw man attacking Quebec’s “different culture.” He made no mention of the fact that Quebecois people of colour had already raised issues about the performance in a variety of online posts. Most disturbingly, the theatre that staged the offensive sketch, Rideau Vert, has responded not with an apology or a commitment to use actors of colour in the future, but with the announcement that they will no longer feature sketches involving anyone of colour.

All of this has been in sharp relief for us following our viewing of Small Axe, Project: Humanity’s production of Andrew Kushnir’s latest verbatim theatre piece. (Full disclosure: more than a decade ago, I performed in several productions with Project: Humanity that were staged for audiences in women’s shelters, schools, and correctional facilities, but I’ve had no official association with them since.) For the sequel to his hit play The Middle Place, in which Kushnir and the P:H collective members interviewed youth in shelters, Kushnir decided to build on a backstage conversation he’d had with a fellow gay actor many years prior. Kushnir had been struck by his castmate’s stories of queer Jamaicans who faced violence and bigotry in their country. At the time, he naively proclaimed, “We are the same!” His friend gently disagreed.

The work opens with an introductory monologue by Kushnir explaining all this, but he then steps back, and the spotlight is put on the cast (who are uniformly excellent), elevated on scaffolding platforms on stage, while they relate dozens of different subjects’ responses to Kushnir’s framing questions. (All of the show’s dialogue, save Kushnir’s, has been taken directly from interviews.)

These responses, affectingly delivered by the actors, reveal a diversity of opinions and experiences: we hear about one gay activist’s loss of 13 friends over four years, for instance, and about a man who’d felt secure in his relatively “out” and upper-class existence until his house was set on fire. We don’t get much of a sense of what Kushnir’s anonymous subjects’ lives are like here in Canada, but we do start to hear a common concern: the interviewees worry that Kushnir doesn’t understand the history of colonialism in the Caribbean islands and the brutality of slavery. What becomes abundantly clear is that homophobia, while troubling, appears to be a less insidious and pervasive issue for Kushnir’s interviewees than racism.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Kushnir hits a point of realization in the piece during an initially raucous series of interviews held during the Pride parade—which turn serious when a particularly insightful pair of women (played by Lisa Codrington and Sarah Afful) turn the question back on him. “I don’t like the answer in that question,” retorts Codrington’s character, after they’re asked to discuss their feelings about the fact that Jamaica and other Caribbean nations are often viewed as dangerous places for LBGT people. The pair focus on intersectionality, the theory that forms of oppression such as racism and homophobia are interconnected and cannot be combated separately, as their most pressing concern—and emphasize that North America can be just as bigoted as their countries of origin. “I don’t want to be tolerated,” says one of the women (eliciting scattered applause from the spellbound audience).

This interview in particular seems to send Kushnir into a tailspin: he veers off course from the traditional model of verbatim theatre and takes centre stage, repeating a key phrase from one of the subjects—”Work on your own shit”—as a mantra. It’s this realization—that his own story, left untold, will continue to subtly warp the narrative he’s been trying to tease from the recorded interviews—that drives him to examine himself in the show’s latter half as a character with his own biases and prejudices, a decision that truly elevates the show and experience. “I was crying,” Kushnir says, as he revisits the conversation he had many years ago with his patient friend. “I think I got so focused on doing, I missed some seeing.”

Whether Kushnir’s realization of his complicity in racism and the resulting on-stage self-examination are convincing enough is up to the individual viewer. The program’s show notes point out that there are some people who think these stories aren’t his to tell, while others have felt that precisely because of his privilege, he has an obligation to help the people he interviewed share their views. That he is mindful of the trust and responsibility his subjects have placed in him, and rigorously examines his own biases on stage, marked a revelatory departure from past documentary theatre efforts. The root causes of Jamaican homophobia may be more exposed by the play’s end, but those roots can’t be pulled up without exposing our individual and collective prejudices as well.

What Kushnir has done with Small Axe is listen—really listen—to his interview subjects, and then endeavour to incorporate their perspectives into his own viewpoint, rather than simply editing and presenting their stories to further his own agenda. The production should in no way be seen as supplanting any of the exceptional theatre created by companies such as Obsidian Theatre, which tells black stories from a black perspective. But the microphone Kushnir holds throughout most of the show is shared with those who have less access to it, even if it is initially in his hands. The columnists who defended blackface in Quebec as culturally permissible could stand to listen to Afful and Codrinton’s character’s crash course on intersectionality; likewise, the racism exposed in the MacLean‘s article should be combated at least in part through more understanding of the challenges faced by those whose cultures have been colonized. We all have our own shit to deal with, our own biased blind spots to examine and challenge, and it’s rare to see a work of theatre do this with such powerful swings as Small Axe.