They Don’t Get Us and We Don’t Get Them

The following article was written for CanPlay the magazine of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.  It was published in the Fall of 2010.

The title of this reflection comes from Philip Akin, the Artistic Director of Obsidian Theatre.  We were in rehearsal and I was going over the list of concerns that educators had with Joseph Jomo Pierre’s stage play Born Ready.  My theatre and his, with Theatre Passe Muraille, produced the play as a double bill with my play Smokescreen but it’s Born Ready that has educators nervous.  The situation was grim.  We had budgeted four out of eight performances for school groups.  The York Region School Board was refusing to allow students to attend, the Separate School Board did not approve students attending and the Toronto District School Board, while not refusing to allow students to attend, were struggling to come to terms with, what they perceived as, problem passages in the text.  The play would go on to receive a coveted four out of four star review from The Toronto Star and fulsome praise from the few young people who did see the play.  But the goal of engaging 2,400 young people in a discussion on risk never happened.

How did this happen?   What was it about Born Ready that we, as theatre artists, were so excited to present and educators found so challenging?  It’s hard to gauge in the case of the York Region School Board.  No reason was given.  Teachers who had made bookings were told to cancel them.  But for the most part, the educators involved were committed, progressive and arts friendly people who were trying to engage with our idea, but couldn’t.  They wanted theatre, but they didn’t want this theatre.

The first problem, the use of profanity, I was ready for.  Or I thought I was.  Most schools are struggling to create a respectful learning environment and frown on students swearing.  When my theatre performs in schools we respect that value.  That’s why we programmed Born Ready in a theatre.  But the profanity actually wasn’t the problem.  Everyone seeing the play, including educators, agreed that these specific characters would speak exactly as they are portrayed.  Their concern was that if they allowed students to attend a play with profanity it might be construed as approval and they could be open to complaints from parents.  We had two teachers who told us they could lose their jobs if they brought students to Born Ready. I had another teacher who was afraid students might blackmail her by threatening to tell their parents that the play had bad words.

I have spent my working life trying to get the attention of principals.  I want them to book my show.  When I became a parent I was astonished to find that I could walk into my child’s school, unannounced, and within fifteen minutes be speaking to the boss.  A considerable amount of power has been ceded, released, granted or grabbed by parents. The result is a kind of chaos.  Educators have to placate ultra-conservative parents who won’t allow their children to sing in music class and ultra-liberal parents who resent being told that their kid is stoned in class.   They are trying to appeal to everyone and they can’t because (a) parents have different values and (b) parents feel empowered to complain when their values aren’t reflected.

As a dramatist, ironically, I am caught in a similar conundrum.  How do I write a story that will appeal to everyone in Toronto?  Currently we are producing plays for specific audiences.  Obsidian is a Black theatre.  Fu-gen is an Asian Theatre.  Buddies is a gay theatre.  Nightwood is a feminist theatre.  Stratford is a classical, musical theatre.  Divide and attract.  A Toronto story would require the character mix of a Dickens novel, the resources of a Broadway musical, eight hours of playing time and simultaneous translation.  ‘Nicholas Nickleby 416/905’.  Without those resources, the successful playwright does what successful playwrights have always done – get specific – which bring me back to Born Ready.   The play explores Black gun violence.  This is immediately controversial because the media has created a negative stereotype that equates Black men with gangstas.  This is serious stuff and the Black community, justifiably, want positive roles models like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.  This is all well and good but pointing up to the light is incomplete unless you also explore the appeal of the dark.  This is what Born Ready does.  It is a tragedy.  It shows the downward spiral of the characters with authenticity, complexity and feeling.  There is violence but it is not glorified.  The play shows that poverty makes guns attractive and guns lead to death.  As a pedagogical message, I can’t imagine a clearer one.   But unfortunately, and ironically, the fear of being accused of cultural stereotyping has stopped young people from seeing the work of a talented Black playwright produced by Toronto’s largest Black theatre which explores a subject that is of critical importance to us all.

Of all the three School Boards, the one that tried hardest to engage with Born Ready was the Toronto District School Board and their comments were the most difficult to receive.  Born Ready is the story of two Black youth growing up in Toronto in conditions of poverty and neglect that are shocking.  The first time these young men like what they see in the mirror is when they pick up a gun.  The gun means food, clothing and, most of all, self respect. The gun is portrayed by a woman.  Now when I say this to a theatre artist they immediately go “Whoah”.  They see that portraying the sensual attraction of a weapon by personifying it as a woman is a theatrical idea full of meaning and resonance. Here’s what the Equity department of Toronto District School Board said after carefully examining the script.

“There are elements of dehumanization / objectification of women in this play that must be addressed with students. The term misogyny should be discussed and deconstructed for students as part of a continuum in a discussion of sexism in this play.”

You see immediately how the virtue of a theatrical idea, one that illuminates our understanding of human behaviour (i.e. why young men are attracted to guns) has been viewed through a completely different lens.  Far from exploring the roots of gun violence, the focus is on sexual stereotyping and the dehumanizing woman. How did this happen?  One factor was that the playwright didn’t make the metaphor crystal clear and thus the female character’s “subservience to her man” was misunderstood.  There was fear that young people would not be mature enough to appreciate the dramatic irony of the play although we saw no signs of that from the youth audiences we were able to attract.  Some young men view woman as sexual objects.  That behaviour was dramatized on stage for all to see, and women, young and old, judged it harshly.  I think sexism and objectification is more subtly, insidiously and deliberately fostered in Ms. Magazine, but I’m not an expert.  My point is that these concerns missed the point.

2005 was declared the Year of the Gun in part because a Black teenager was shot dead outside a church and a White teenager was shot dead shopping on Boxing Day. In 2007 the numbers got worse.  The tragedy of bullets randomly killing innocent civilians is putting a chill on the whole city.  Young Jordan Manners was executed in his high school.  The Falconer Report found that he died of “pure neglect”.  That’s exactly the point made in Born Ready.  Joseph has taken his reality, his specific experience, his truth, funneled it through the theatrical imagination and come to exactly the same conclusion as the provincial report.  Surely educators, the gatekeepers of our audience, would be happy to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with their students.  If we are not helping them to confront this truth, in the safe environment of a theatre, with their teachers at their sides, in the hands of award winning artists, when WILL we tell them?

Questions.  It’s something theatre does very well.  As a playwright, I am not trying to say anything.  If I say nothing perfectly, I will have said everything.  American playwright David Mamet says that plays “have as much chance of increasing humane behaviour as Porgy and Bess has of ending segregation”.  He may be right.  I prefer British playwright Tom Stoppard’s take.  He doesn’t think theatre can change public policy but he thinks it can change the social atmosphere out of which public policy might be changed.  It achieves this, as Shakespeare famously said, by holding “a mirror up to nature”.  By showing, as opposed to instructing, we invite young people to make up their own minds.  This gives theatre enormous credibility.  Their response to Born Ready is that it is “real”.  It is a reality many of them are living and they are enormously grateful and appreciative to see it portrayed onstage.  When they see Smokescreen, they say, “Thank you for treating us like adults”.   Mission accomplished!  Yet the lack of a clear cut, unambiguous “message” creates problems for educators trained to deliver clearly defined learning outcomes.  That’s fine but there is another way to educate and develop the kind of high level thinking we will need to solve the problems of our age.  Expose young people to something really stimulating, something that has direct relevance to their lives and then help them unpack that experience into meaning.

Arts-in-Education is my métier and I have been able to make the hyphens hold these two words together for over thirty years.  Smokescreen, although controversial to some, has successfully toured high schools and been translated into four other languages.  Recently, the Ministry of Education through the Elementary Teachers Association financed a ten week tour of my play, Danny, King of the Basement, about child poverty.  Educators are my colleagues and friends.  But co-producing Born Ready has cast us as adversaries.  I hear their concerns.  To reach my audience I must and I will.  Because I believe my 3,000 year old art form has the capacity to powerfully engage young people by revealing their world.  “The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of a King”.  Word.