Saturday, August 6 I took my daughter to the play Blackberry. Set in present-day Hamilton and performed outdoors in a hidden gem known as Carter Park, our experience was no less than spectacular. So much so, that my 28-year-old, with a Master’s in English lit, insisted I interview the playwright.
The following evening, I took my 24-year-old daughter. With a background in fine art and labour studies, she thought the play was outstanding and a true reflection of societal inequities existing today.
So, when I read long time theatre critic Gary Smith’s review in the Hamilton Spectator some days later, I had to ask myself, what play did Smith actually attend? Because the play he wrote about absolutely did not reflect, nor do justice to, the enthralling theatre experience I was immersed in for a tight 90 minutes on two consecutive nights.
It seems Smith was originally invited to the opening night performance of the play, but his calendar only permitted him to attend the preview that was actually the first dress rehearsal.
Smith’s review, and I use that word loosely, stated that playwright and founder of Red Betty Theatre (RBT) Radha Menon was not only swerving toward polemic but lecturing on social injustice, racial inequality, police brutality, and the loss of hope by troubled youth.
That solidified in my mind, the fact that Smith was reacting like an angry, old white man whose life of privilege, including access to systemically racist institutions and exclusionary society, was being soundly challenged.
Let me be clear, when you watch Blackberry with an open mind and heart, there is no room for comfort. And, it is long past time when men like Smith should be made uncomfortable by the real life experiences not only portrayed in this amazing play, but playing out every day in the very city that Smith lives and writes in – Hamilton, Ontario.
Canada is a white supremacist space built on stolen ground and sheltered behind polite language that masks many things including genocide, systemic racism, and ongoing class struggles.
The fact that Smith wrote such an ill-informed review, laying bare his own discomfort and lack of empathy, means Menon and the cast did a fantastic job of capturing what most Canadians would like to avoid seeing.
“This is not a play about being comfortable,” said Menon in an interview with rabble. “I’ve never been comfortable in my life as a non-white person living in colonized shoes. And, I imagine neither are Indigenous or other racialized folk. It’s a privilege to be comfortable.”
Not about issues, but real lives and real people
Smith refers offhandedly to the fact that Blackberry is about ‘issues.’ According to Menon, “It’s not about issues. It’s about people’s lives and the fact that these are the things that we deal with as racialized, marginalized youth. This is not about issues. This is about our lives. We go through life having to navigate police injustice, police violence. We go through life having to constantly be vigilant about where we’re walking, who we’re talking to.”
Menon says in terms of sex work, it’s the same thing. It’s the idea of a society that deems some people good, valued and bestows worth on them. Juxtapose those people against others who are judged by society to possess none of those qualities and as such, considers them less than.
It’s surprising that Smith failed to make the connection between Blackberry and what is happening in the Barton Street neighbourhood around making sex work safer.
Menon, who has lived in downtown Hamilton for the past 14 years, originally set the play in 1985 England where she spent her teen years. She has since adapted the play to reflect the experience of youth in her new home city.
“The areas that any marginalized communities, especially visible minorities in the city, are pushed to are less than desirable neighbourhoods along with sex workers. Because nobody wants the Black guy or the ‘prostitute’ living next to them,” observed Menon.
She went on to say, “so, we’re all pushed into the inner-city areas nobody wants, until gentrification happens and then they kick us all out again. And, suddenly, we can’t even find a home. We can’t even find a place to rent in a place that we have always lived in.”
This is all part of the same system which Menon claims allows some to thrive and others not. And, that reality being laid bare makes some feel attacked.
Blackberry is about what visible minorities, racialized people, and those considered less than, have to deal with on the daily. Or, should I say, on a daily basis for those unaccustomed to the language of youth. And, that language is perfectly executed throughout a play that focuses on the lives of four racialized, marginalized, and othered Hamilton teens.
Blackberry is a reflection of North American society
The ‘issues’ that Menon addresses are intersectional and include ongoing colonization including genocide, systemic racism, classism, gender biases, treatment of those identifying as 2SLGBTQIA+, treatment of sex workers, MMIWG2S, Every Child Matters, a child and youth foster care system that has no safety nets for those who age out of the system, and the defund the police movement.
Menon maintains that the play is a reflection of society as we live in it.
“I have had my dealings with cops. I know what they’re like and I’m a very privileged person. I’m well educated. Very well spoken. I’m strong. I’m not the same 17-year-old that was escorted into police cars just for walking up a street,” explained Menon.
Smith is clearly using his privilege, power, and platform to silence the Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) theatre group that is speaking truth to power, but that does not surprise Menon.
“It’s a very rare Canadian that can look around them and see what’s going on and try to make a difference. I’m not saying I’m blameless at all. We’re all settlers,” observed Menon. “But my occupation of this land as a settler, is something that has never sat well with me. I see Indigenous folk just languishing and I can’t take it because this is their land.”
The Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) thought Blackberry was worth sharing with the public. In fact, everything was in place for GCTC to present Blackberry in 2022, but COVID got in the way and that opportunity was lost.
This is a play that every Canadian should see in order to know what someone else is going through and to understand the uncomfortable realization that there are huge swaths of the population who will never call the police under any circumstance simply because they never know who is going to show up in that uniform, and what is going to play out with this person who has power over their continued existence.
White Canadians like to pretend that everyone has the same rights, the same opportunities, and the same great standard of living. But real life, and Blackberry, lays bare the truth — that this is just a (white) lie.
Confronting uncomfortable truths about Canada
Canadian politics has more than its share of right and alt-right parties and views. Unfortunately, those voices are becoming dominant in some provinces.
But, hey, Canada is still a nice, polite, peace-loving country. Right?
Just not for the main characters in Blackberry and certainly not for many IBPOC youth across this country who have had real life experiences that end up masked behind Canada’s nice façade.
“Canada is founded on stolen land and we are all culpable. We can either open our eyes and our pocketbooks and try to do something about it. Or, we can just continue where there’s such segregation, where Indigenous communities are imprisoned by a ruthless piece of legislation called The Indian Act and have two or three different Canada’s,” said Menon.
I would argue that would include the Canada of Gary Smith and the Canada of Rylan Bomberry and Molly Mutch.
While Menon was working with the incredible Mohawk/Ojibway artist and poet, Cher Obediah, she suggested Bomberry would be perfect for the part of Yvonne – and she was absolutely right!
Bomberry, who is Mohawk Bear clan from Six Nations, perfectly evokes the spirit of Yvonne in the play.
Menon admits that casting the part of Fiona was harder because there isn’t a glut of young Black artists in Hamilton.
Menon was working with actress, playwright and arts educator, Melissa Murray-Mutch featured in RBTs Decolonize Your Ears new play series when Murray-Mutch suggested her daughter would be great for the part.
Unfortunately, Murray-Mutch was very much wrong! Molly Mutch was not just great, she was outstanding as Fiona!!!
Both of these young women were able to tap into their lived experiences to get a better understanding of the complexities, emotions and the many layers that made up their characters.
As for the setting of the play? Personally, I had no idea that this little lovely green space surrounded by railway tracks and community gardens on one side, a roadway leading up the mountain with a fabulous mural painted on it on another, where a community center and homes even existed.
There are picnic tables, a gazebo, kids’ playground with water feature, basketball courts and a treed hill that served as the backdrop to the play as well as a space for characters disappear into between scenes.
Both nights I took a picnic dinner which we enjoyed pre-show while sitting on a blanket listening to music playing on the sound system which, admittedly, was not up to par during the second performance I attended.
Intermittent coils of aluminum trunking demarcate the stage from sitting area. But be prepared because the audience is literally immersed in the play.
As for the basketball players – who did play a boom box at one performance – they fit into the entire vibe of the play. As did the train and cars passing by and the kids playing in the background.
Early evening turning to dusk and then night reflected the progression of the play from lighthearted to murky to dark but with a little hope remaining.
For Menon, “what I see around, it’s the same 30 years later. The same things happening. The marginalization I face as an artist in Canada is immense. I’m not alone in that. And, it’s the same in every other area. I find Canada’s a country that exists with a veil of politeness and civility. But when you rip away the veil there’s a very ugly truth that Canadians themselves don’t even want to look at.”
Blackberry invites audiences to engage, learn, feel and develop empathy for the other. I strongly suggest Smith experience Blackberry again, but instead of a chair, bug repellent, hat and jacket, take an open mind and heart.
Blackberry is performed nightly at Carter Park, 32 Stinson Avenue, Hamilton at 7:30 pm until Sunday, August 21.
Tickets, available on a sliding scale, can be ordered here.
You can also experience Blackberry at the Welland Amphitheatre, 151 King St., Welland, Ontario on August 25th and 26th at 7:30 pm.
Purchase tickets here.