Off The Island, the coming out tale of a young Caribbean man, is one of many musicals at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival. I have some very mixed feelings about the show and I think it’s important that I explain my ambivalence. It may not have entirely worked for me, but for very specific reasons—both artistic and personal.
Stephen, a young man from “the island,” leaves his worried mother to go to school in Toronto. He’s introduced to the hustle and bustle of the city in the show’s most impressive dance number. After moving in with his cousin Stacey and her roommate, Daniel, and his world begins to expand. He gets high for the first time after too many cannabis-infused brownies. Stacey and Daniel then take him to a male strip club where his attraction to one of the dancers challenges his heteronormative, religious upbringing. This causes an intense whirlwind of conflicting emotions.
We learn that Stephen has always had these feelings, though he has repressed them to fit into a culture that would otherwise reject him. Daniel and Stacey serve as supportive guides for Stephen’s journey of self-discovery.
As Stephen, Gabriel Hudson has a giddy charisma. His hilarious ramblings after the weed-brownies are some of the best stoned acting I’ve seen. In the phone calls to his mother, he persuasively conveys the restrained torment of hiding his spirit and energy from her.
As Stephen’s strictly religious mother, Georgia Grant paints a convincing portrait of religious fervour and unwavering commitment to strict ideals. When she discovers her son’s budding romance with another man, her reaction makes her a genuinely terrifying presence. I would have liked to have seen a few more dimensions towards the end though—perhaps the emotional toll of disowning her son.
As Stacey and Brian, Carmela Antonio and Armon Ghaeinizadeh have some very funny moments as they respond to Stephen’s naiveté and internalized homophobia. Their dynamic is goofy and Ghaeinizadeh in particular has some great one-liners.
Brian Gibson’s production is rough around the edges and feels very much at the workshop stage. With music by Michael Poisson, Connor Young, and Luiz Monterei, Gibson provides lyrics from his own book and serves as both director and part of the ensemble. While I didn’t find the songs particularly memorable, they do function well within the show and highlight the emotions that define each segment of the story.
I was expecting this story to offer a tidy, musical-comedy resolution with tearful, joyous reunions, and where loving acceptance wins the day; but that’s not what Off The Island is about. Stephen’s story is one of self-acceptance and the very real pain of leaving family behind when maintaining those bonds and existing truthfully cannot be reconciled.
This is where my ambivalence and, ultimately, my privilege shows up clear and bright. I’m resistant to coming out stories; I’ve seen many and few have resonated. Growing up in Canada—with open and accepting family, friends and schoolmates—my own coming out experience was smooth and easy. I’ve been overwhelmingly blessed in this regard. My sexuality has never been a point of contention and I’ve not experienced the heartache and trauma depicted here (and in many such stories). When homophobia rears its ugly head, I’m baffled and appalled; my mind rejects it.
As this show reminds me, I too often turn a blind eye to the reality of homophobia as it exists for so many. Even within our own queer community, many cultures and identities still struggle for inclusion and acceptance. Further work is required of us; we need to do better, both here and abroad.
This production didn’t sweep me off my feet as I expect musical to do, but I was genuinely moved by the power of its finale. Off The Island tells a heartfelt story and I highly recommend checking this effort out. It has been crafted with genuine love.