A new wave of plays about race and immigration aims to stoke conversation


TORONTO — When Broken Social Scene’s Jason Collett plays the master of ceremonies in an anti-Nazi cabaret production this month, he hopes audiences draw their own conclusions on the timely political subtext.

The new adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Private Life of the Master Race,” originally written shortly before the Second World War began, remains as potent a social commentary today as it was 80 years ago, the musician said. He just doesn’t want it to feel “too on-the-nose” with its critique.

“It’s been quite illuminating to see how timeless Brecht’s insights were,” Collett said of the production, which is being workshopped in front of audiences Tuesday and Thursday as part of the SummerWorks theatre festival in Toronto.

“We’re living through a very similar cycle that he was identifying in 1930s Germany. And the conditions that created that atmosphere are what is most startling to me.”

The stage play is one of a number of Canadian productions taking a stab at timely conversations over issues like racism, immigration and authoritarianism in an era defined by President Donald Trump and the rise of a white nationalist movement.

“The Revolutionists,” which runs at Ottawa’s Gladstone next February, uses the extremist setting of 1893 Paris as the backdrop for a story about activism, feminism and terrorism.

And Soulpepper’s “Yellow Rabbit,” which begins Toronto performances in November, imagines a future world where a Chinese sanctuary city leads to a battle for racial supremacy.

The play began as a “very cursory look at limiting Asian stereotypes” that its creators Bessie Cheng and Aaron Jan wrote as a university project a number of years ago. The storyline initially revolved around a utopia run by Caucasian people, but as the writers watched conversations surrounding race intensify online, they began to shape their script differently.

The Caucasian city became one run by Chinese people who created their own levels of status within the borders. It shifted the underlying themes of the play and pushed the audience to consider ethnocentricity in a different way.

“Whenever there’s a political work, usually in the East Asian diaspora, that deals with themes of racism, it’s always in relation to a Caucasian body,” said Jan.

“That’s not true to our own experiences. What’s more true… is the microaggressions that we have done and endured. It’s less about pointing fingers at other people and more about going, ‘Wait a minute, there are problems in our own community that aren’t being talked about. Let’s break them open.'”

Esther Jun, the stage director of “The Private Life of the Master Race” which is told in a series of playlets, said her production also searches for meaning in the current political climate. She describes the production as flipping channels between a number of scenes, each one exposing audiences to a starkly different moment, juxtaposing humour against seriousness.

“I’m hoping they will leave somewhat unsettled by the familiarity of it all,” she said.

“I’m not asking people to get up from their seats and join a movement marching in the streets, but just to be more aware of how inaction is actually the root of so many of these issues.”

Fellow director Sean Devine explored the nature of complicity when he produced “Building the Wall,” based on a play by Tony winner Robert Schenkkan, at the Gladstone last year. The story imagines a future where Trump rounds up millions of illegal immigrants as part of a massive deportation. Its main character is a private prison supervisor who’s been convicted of atrocities.

Devine remembers how the fictional dystopia of authoritarianism seemed distant to audiences at the time.

“People watching the show said, ‘Oh come on, you’re extrapolating this too far. This science fiction could never happen,'” he said.

But then storylines that reflected the play started appearing in news headlines when the U.S. enacted a policy of separating child migrants from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Devine recognizes a certain naivety might’ve existed at the time, even among fellow producers who were trying to get projects onto stages while the political climate was still fervent.

“The fear was that there’s no way Trump can last, he’ll be impeached way before we produce this,” he said.

“It almost felt as if trying to create new fictions about this couldn’t keep up with the insanity he was creating on his own.”

Laura Nanni, artistic director of the SummerWorks festival, believes live theatre holds a powerful position because it can react to current events almost in real time. If a news story breaks one day, the next theatre performance could factor that into how certain scenes play out.

Scripts can also evolve over the years to find new resonance.

“Very often the work isn’t static,” she said.

Nanni said she’s attracted to stories that cross the boundaries of different disciplines to provoke conversations.

“I’m always interested in those intersections because that’s where progress happens,” she said.

“That’s where community is built.”

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press


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