TONIGHT ON THE TERRORDOME: Political Theatre at the E-Town International Fringe
6 PM Mountain Time
FM 88.5 Edmonton
Tonight on the programme, a first for The Terrordome: features on two plays at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, the second-largest theatre festival in the world.
In the second half of tonight’s show, I’ll be speaking with the actors and directors of Honey in the Lion’s Head, an electrifying retelling of the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah, with overtones of the modern Israel-Palestine conflict.
But first I’ll be talking with actor-playwright Berend McKenzie and director Denis Simpson about McKenzie’s autobiographical play they’re presenting. I will warn you, their title is a shocker, and portions of tonight’s interviews and excerpts contain adult language guaranteed to offend some. McKenzie’s and Simpson’s play is called Niggerfag.
As the title suggests, the play’s an examination, through vignettes of several parts of McKenzie’s life, of the pain, humour, bewilderment, exhilaration, alienation, terror and love of growing up in Alberta as a gay African-Canadian boy in the 1970s and 80s. It also happens to be a superb play, with remaining shows tonight at 9:30, Friday at noon and Sunday at 3:30 at the Art Barns. (Visit fringetheatreadventures.ca for more information and for tickets.)
African-Canadian actor and playwright Berend McKenzie appeared alongside Halle Berry and Sharon Stone in the feature film Cat Woman, and has taken roles in television programmes such as Cold Squad, Jeremiah, Life or Something Like It and Andromeda.
Jamaican-Canadian actor, singer, songwriter, dancer and director Denis Simpson is probably best known as the brother who was the host of longtime Canadian children’s show The Polka Dot Door. At one time he even co-hosted it with his sister Gloria Reuben, who played physician assistant Jeanie Boulet on American medical drama E.R.
But Simpson’s career is extensive, with thirty years of screen rolls on shows such as Robson Arms, Soul Food, MacGyver and Seeing Things, among many others, and stage credits including Wang Dang Doodle, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Denis Anyone?
I’ll admit—I was set to hate McKenzie’s and Simpson’s play because of the title. I’m no fan of what’s often called “reclamation,” that is, attempting to transform abusive terms such as the N-word into terms of endearment.
First, because one can’t re-claim something that one never owned and tht someone else created to cause hurt; second, because the very people who say they’re reclaiming usually continue to use the words as terms of abuse and self-hatred; and third, because better words of endearment such as “brother” and “friend” already exist.
But after sitting down on Saturday with these two men to hear not so much about the title as about the remarkable stories in the play, I knew I couldn’t wait to see the show itself. And it’s excellent. Tonight you’ll hear my conversation with both men and an excerpt from the stage play.
Since I knew we’d have plenty of time to discuss his play’s social ideas, and because social artist’s politics are often discussed to the exclusion of their artistry, I began by asking Berend McKenzie to tell me about the aesthetics of his work.
HONEY IN THE LION'S HEAD
Few conflicts of the new millennium are as guaranteed to get people as angry as the crisis between Israel and Palestine.
To some, it’s a straightforward case of Westerners under attack by barbarians and fanatics. To others, it’s a heroic struggle against a genocidal colonial occupation.
The truth, of course, is nowhere near as simple or as neat as that, since polls routinely demonstrate that substantial portions and sometimes majorities on both sides favour a two-state solution and peaceful co-existence. Both sides also have peace groups working for a nonviolent solution to the crisis.
But despite good will on both sides, the occupation continues to spawn violence. The recent Israel-Gaza War was a nightmare: according to the London Independent, 13 Israelis were killed, and more than 1400 Palestinians killed, including 900 civilians, of whom 300 were children.
That kind of disparity, a ratio of 1 to 107, parallels ancient war stories of how one powerful warrior from the side of the “good guys” slew scores or even hundreds of foes from among the “bad guys.”
One of those ancient stories is that of Samson, the Biblical strong-man who slew Philistines by the field-full. Having been betrayed by his Philistine lover Delilah, and blinded by his foes, he collapsed the Philistine temple and killed thousands of his enemies as his final act before his own death.
That story is the basis for the play Honey in the Lion’s Head, currently playing at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, with two more showings, one Thursday at 6:45 and another on Saturday at 2 pm at the Catalyst Theatre. (Visit fringetheatreadventures.ca for more information and for tickets.)
It’s a modern retelling of the war-crossed lovers, but without the baggage of perfect heroes and irredeemable villains in the original text. Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and actors Nathan Barrett and Chala Hunter explode the story before our eyes while rendering it in human terms.
This isn’t the bombast of a propagandist’s pamphlet or the easy ultimate answers of a sermon. Instead, it’s a rich, engaging, funny, sexy, infuriating, elegant, violent and tragic display of how war, occupation and ethnic hatred deform people’s lives… a depiction of how people who can love are capable of evil, and how people who’ve committed evil are capable of love.
I sat down yesterday with the creators of Honey in the Lion’s Head, and I began by asking director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett why Samson & Delilah, and why now?