Who You Callin Black Eh?, playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival, is playwright Rita Shelton Deverell’s exploration of shadeism and the fractured self that results from an identity fraught with tension and expectation. It is a snapshot, through a metaphorical lens, of our modern world—tossing around concepts like bi-racial, multi-racial, post-racial—and the people adrift in the chaos.
Our main character, named Heroine, has a white mother and a Black father. These parents fancy their union to be a model of racial harmony, but as they struggle to assert control over their daughter’s physical appearance, this proves to be an idealistic fantasy.
After some race riots at her school, Heroine leaves her small town for the big city, hoping to escape capital-R Racism. She doesn’t. In fact, her internal struggle is made worse. As she navigates a network of people who claim colour blindness, they use her as a token of either whiteness or Blackness, depending on their need.
There is an absurdist quality to the storytelling. To highlight the theme of social masks, and accentuate the delusions and pretensions that close in on Heroine, the characters she interacts with wear stylized masks. Designed by director Clara McBride, these masks are grotesque, comical and deeply unsettling in the way they mimic the racial confusion of the story by contrasting with the colour of each performer’s skin.
The audience participation aspect of the performance isn’t very well handled. While the point being made is a valid one, it hasn’t been well implemented. It caused some confusion during the performance I attended and was ultimately distracting.
Playful and expressive, the cast (Chattrisse Dolabaille, Jason Pilgrim, Jessica Bowmer, Brendan Chandler and Illiana Spirakis) draws out the emotional truth hovering precariously in the fringes of this very stylized presentation. Osaze Dolabaille’s drum accompaniment provides an added layer of atmospheric immersion.
Who You Callin Black Eh? is a richly layered work that addresses a myriad of social concerns regarding mixed racial identity. It’s often very funny, though the unpleasant realities the story indicates are always present. I was particularly intrigued by its depiction of social justice being incorporated and commodified.