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Review: Other Side of the Game is a passionate but uneven play

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Other Side of the Game
Written by
Amanda Parris
Genre
Play
Directed by
Nigel Shawn Williams
Actors
Virgilia Griffith, Shakura Dickson, Ryan Rosery, Peter Bailey and Ordena Stephens-Thompson
Company
Aki Studio Theatre
Venue
Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre
City
TORONTO

"She was there through my incarceration," sang the reggae rapper Shaggy, giving a shout-out to his loyal lady in the 2000 hit Angel. He was a heck of a lot more appreciative than the egotistical young men who wind up behind bars in Amanda Parris's new play, Other Side of the Game.

Parris, like Shaggy, wants to pay tribute to those women whose fierce loyalty – known as "ride-or-die" in hip-hop parlance – leads them to support their men at any cost. But she also shows us those costs, ranging from endless personal sacrifices to jail time.

Her passionate but uneven play, getting its premiere production from the Cahoots and Obsidian theatre companies, is set in Toronto both in the 1970s and in the present day. The seventies scenes focus on Akilah and Beverley, two young women involved in a black activist group. Akilah is a single mom who also handles the bulk of the workload for the group, while its sexist men, the young militant Khalil and the veteran pacifist Elder, spend their time arguing. When Beverley, a naive but enthusiastic student from Halifax, shows up wanting to join the cause, she's strung along by Khalil, who pretends to be interested in her ideas.

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In the present, we meet Nicole, also a young single mom, and her best friend Shevon. While Nicole tentatively rekindles a relationship with old boyfriend Devonte, who is coming off a two-year prison stint, Shevon falls hard for Winston, a sweet-talking, big-spending gangster who deals in guns and drugs.

In both scenarios, the women show a selfless devotion that gets repaid with superficial affection from their men, who are condescending, controlling and, in Devonte's case, unfaithful to boot. But if these male-female patterns haven't changed, Parris argues, then neither has the societal racism that reinforces them. Her pictures of black Toronto then and now aren't a study in contrasts, but in similarities. While they may have been called "the pigs" in the seventies and "the po-po" today, the police are still harassing and carding young black men. If those men stray off the path, their options to improve their lives are still limited. And while child care may now be available to poor black working mothers, it's often either unaffordable or substandard.

This mirror-image effect is emphasized in director Nigel Shawn Williams's staging by having the same actors play Akilah/Nicole (Virgilia Griffith), Beverley/Shevon (Shakura Dickson), Khalil/Devonte (Ryan Rosery) and Elder/Winston (Peter Bailey). In most cases, they don't even change costumes and there are times when you're not sure for a moment if you're in the era of the Black Panthers or Black Lives Matter.

CBC personality Parris, who hosts the R&B radio show Marvin's Room and the arts TV series Exhibitionists, is making her playwriting debut with this piece. Not surprisingly, she approached it as a journalist, gathering her material through numerous interviews, and some of the scenes do feel like she's dramatizing anecdotes instead of building three-dimensional characters.

Her least satisfying creations, oddly enough, are the two strongest women, Akilah and Nicole, who might be interchangeable if it wasn't for Nicole's interest in self-help strategies and her penchant for inspiring quotes. (She's continually spouting the wisdom of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho.) Griffith plays them both with a perpetual look of suffering.

Dickson is more fun as the eager Beverley and her spunky homegirl counterpart, Shevon – although the lilting West Indian accent she uses in the latter role has all but disappeared by the end of the show. Rosery, meanwhile, is a convincing charmer as the chill Devonte and appropriately insufferable as Khalil, the classic pedantic young radical. Peter Bailey nails another pair of stereotypes: the cranky old-school radical and the silk-smooth gangster. Ordena Stephens-Thompson is underused but excellent in a series of authority-figure roles.

What the play lacks in depth it makes up for partly with witty writing, and Parris unabashedly caters to her Toronto audience, getting localized laughs with lines about No Frills versus Sobeys and Yorkdale versus Yorkville. The funniest bit, however, is a universal one involving a blasé child-care worker who refuses to change diapers.

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Williams, directing on a suitably urban set by Joanna Yu (graffiti-spattered walls, concrete blocks and a chain-link fence plastered with garbage), garnishes otherwise realistic scenes with sprinklings of physical theatre. He also opens the show intriguingly, with a long prison waiting-room scene that comes off as an absurdist nightmare – a freaky ballet of frustration, choreographed by Jasmyn Fyffe to the dull buzz of fluorescent lighting (sound design by Verne Good).

Other Side of the Game is part of Parris's multimedia Ride-or-Die Project, in which she has set out to redefine that term to include black women who are also intensely loyal to a community or a cause. The heroines listed on her Ride-or-Die blog include anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman and the first black U.S. congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm – sisters who did it for themselves. As they, and the play, suggest, it's better to stand by your beliefs than to stand by your man.

Other Side of the Game continues to Nov. 5 (cahoots.ca, obsidiantheatre.com).

Meat Loaf says Bat Out of Hell musical brought him to tears (The Canadian Press)
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