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We Are Proud to Present: Smart play-within-a-play crosses racial boundaries

Rosemary Dunsmore and Richard Greenblatt star in Late Company, presenting until Nov. 29 at the Theatre Centre in Toronto.

Dahlia Katz

We Are Proud to Present …

3.5 stars
Written by Jackie Sibblies DruryDirected by Ravi Jain
Starring Marcel Stewart, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah

Late Company

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2 stars
Written by Jordan Tannahill
Directed by Peter Pasyk
Starring Rosemary Dunsmore, Richard Greenblatt

Both at the Theatre Centre in Toronto

In the new civil rights movement, theatre has proved to be a small but important battleground.

Every week, it seems, another controversy erupts over white actors taking on non-white roles south of the border – whether it's a traditional production of The Mikado in New York cancelled due to a campaign against yellowface or a non-traditional production of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop in Ohio with a white Martin Luther King Jr. denounced by the playwright.

Canada's not immune to these disputes over representation of race, either. A new play in Dartmouth called Black Dragon Mountain was called off by its playwright last week due to concerns about Caucasians playing Chinese characters, while Toronto-based Native Earth Performing Arts recently made a commitment to cast only aboriginal actors in native roles after a backlash over white actresses in Yvette Nolan's The Unplugging last spring.

The superficial take-away from this parade of protest would be that it is no longer considered appropriate, under any circumstances, for a white actor to play a character of colour.

What to make, then, of We Are Proud to Present …, a theatrical provocation about race in performance and the performance of race, currently on at the Theatre Centre?

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One of this smart play-within-a-play's most provocative moments sees a white actor (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) delivering a monologue as an African-American grandmother. His performance seems an offensive caricature at first, but then a black actress (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) says she recognizes her family in it. The conceit only becomes more layered and laden as the white/black man/woman launches into a no-nonsense lecture about the dangers of assuming you know anything about anyone based on race.

McMurtry-Howlett's superb performance walks the line between perverse and persuasive, and slowly gathers surprising power.

Is this metatheatrical challenge acceptable to audiences because we know it has been crafted by a black woman? Brooklyn playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is the creator of this play with the full title of – take a deep breath – We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

The premise is this: Three unnamed white actors and three unnamed black actors are publicly workshopping a collective creation about Germany's colonial campaign of extermination against the Herero – what is considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century and a rehearsal for the Holocaust.

These fictional theatre creators come up against a problem early on: The only first-person accounts they have to base their play on are letters that German soldiers wrote to their wives back home. Relying on these documents, the white actors begin to dominate in the workshop – and the black actors are sidelined.

One black actor (Marcel Stewart) demands that the Herero take up more space in the play – and the actors start to attempt to put themselves in the shoes of the tribe. But in inventing scenes, the actors – both black and white – end up falling into African stereotypes or filtering the events of the early 20th century through more familiar ones from the United States. During a harrowing standoff between a German soldier (Brett Donahue) and a Herero man trying to return to his home (Stewart again), the German develops a Southern accent and the Herero man ends up seeming more like a stand-in for the martyrs of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Ravi Jain's direction, assisted by Lisa Karen Cox, teases out the complex questions left in the wings in the current casting controversies. Is it possible to perform a different race on stage without relying on stereotypical shorthand? Is it possible to perform your own race without doing so?

Drury's play itself culminates in an unleashing of performative hatred on stage that asks whether it's actually possible to separate the shouting of a slur on a stage from shouting it in the streets. Great questions, no answers – just a theatrical experiment that left the audience I saw it with sitting in silence for almost 10 minutes at the end.

We Are Proud to Present … is part of a collaboration between Jain's Why Not Theatre company and the Theatre Centre called the November Ticket. As part of it, in the theatre upstairs, Jordan Tannahill's Late Company is being performed under the direction of Peter Pasyk.

This SummerWorks hit is a much more traditional play about two couples clashing over dinner and drinks – that reliable theatrical trope that stretches from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to God of Carnage to recent Pulitzer Prize winner Disgraced. In this case, Debora (Rosemary Dunsmore) and Michael (Richard Greenblatt) have invited Bill (John Cleland), Tamara (Fiona Highet) and their son Curtis (Liam Sullivan) over for dinner to try to make peace.

Debora and Michael's gay son committed suicide after being bullied at school by Curtis and his friends – and they have a letter to read to him, and Curtis has a letter to read to the parents. If you've ever seen a play in this format, you'll know that this attempt at truth and reconciliation will not go according to plan – though Tannahill's characters never really pretend that they ever thought it would, either. The playwright – who recently won a Dora Award and the Carol Bolt Award for his haunting play, Concord Floral – has all the parents let out their barely hidden homophobia in front of Curtis, who becomes the silent hero of the play.

Many of Tannahill's recent works have wowed, but this script is both too contrived and not contrived enough. It brings up all of the expected talking points – the It Gets Better project, the social media torments, the hypocrisies of the former Conservative government on gay rights – but hasn't found a dramatically compelling container for them.

And while the acting is certainly solid in a way – with Dunsmore's angry, grief-stricken mother holding the centre – the presence of an actual teenager in all his truthful, awkward glory on stage has the unfortunate side effect of showing the phoniness of the naturalism around him. This is perhaps Tannahill's most producible play, but it just sits there like a dinner getting cold.

We Are Proud to Present … and Late Company (theatrecentre.org) continue to Nov. 29.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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