Ambitious collaboration between Obsidian Theatre and CBC Gem imagines 21 different Black futures
21 BLACK FUTURES by various artists (Obsidian Theatre/CBC Gem), begins streaming Friday (February 12) and continues February 19 and 26. CBC Gem.
What is the future of Blackness? That question is something 63 artists were asked to consider for 21 Black Futures, one of the most ambitious theatre-TV collaborations in Canadian history.
Produced by Obsidian Theatre and presented by CBC Arts, the series – the brainchild of Obsidian’s new artistic director, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu – commissioned 21 Black playwrights to pen 10-minute monodramas, to be directed by 21 Black directors and performed by 21 Black actors.
The first seven drop this Friday (February 12) on the free CBC Gem site, with seven more appearing on the following Fridays until the end of the month.
One of the highlights of the first week’s lineup is The Sender, Cheryl Foggo’s semi-satire that imagines a world in which racists are relegated to a place called White Supremacist Island.
“When Mumbi asked me about the future of Blackness, I wanted to write something about a positive future,” says Foggo, on a Zoom call from Calgary. “And I realized I couldn’t honestly envision a positive future as long as racism still deeply impacted the lives of racialized people on a daily basis.”
Foggo isn’t just talking about the sort of overt hatred expressed by groups like the Proud Boys or the recent terrorists who stormed the U.S. Capitol last month. She’s talking about subtle, daily micro aggressions by people who may be your friends and neighbours.
“White supremacy impacts our health, well-being, relationships, jobs – absolutely everything,” says Foggo, an acclaimed author, filmmaker and historian.
One of the many side benefits of 21 Black Futures is that it’s allowed Black artists to work with people they hadn’t collaborated with before.
When Otu suggested the Edmonton-born, and now Toronto-based director Leah-Simone Bowen as The Sender’s director, Foggo was delighted; she’s a big fan of Bowen and Falen Johnson’s Secret Life Of Canada podcast, and had even guested on it. Neither had worked before with Amanda Cordner, who plays the eponymous “sender.”
Both Bowen and Cordner, speaking on the same Zoom call, could obviously relate to the script.
“When I was first started reading it, I thought the island was a great idea – let’s get on this right now,” laughs Bowen. “But as I got further into it, I realized there was no easy solution. Who would get sent? What would be considered a transgression/ And of course, the script resonated with me because I’ve had so many personal experiences where I was the only Black person in a room hearing micro-aggression or aggression and I would look around thinking, ‘Does anybody else feel this? No? Okay, I’m just going to internalize this and come up with my own personal solutions about how to get through the day or year with this person.'”
And Cordner emphasizes how her character, Sil, pleads with a friend to rethink being sent to the island because there’s no coming back – and living there means you can’t use any invention by Black people, or enjoy any contribution made by them.
The artists were offered the opportunity to film the piece on the stage at Meridian Hall, formerly the Sony Centre, which Cordner says was a glorious experience.
“Some great people have walked on that stage, so I felt honoured,” she says.
Strict pandemic protocols were in place, with technicians and stagehandsall masked and shielded. Bowen directed remotely through Zoom.
Because all three work in theatre, and the Meridian was available, they wanted to make sure there was a nod to theatre, even though audiences would end up viewing it on a screen.
“I think we’re all getting to know this hybrid, a work that exists in this middle place between theatre and film,” says Bowen. “Amanda and I had many conversations about how ‘big’ to make the performance. You can’t give a film performance, but you also can’t give the type of performance you’d deliver in a theatre. So we had to find a middle place. We’re finding something new here.”
Bowen has produced and written works for Obsidian before, and says she was often encouraged to look at Black history, subjects and issues from the past. So she’s thrilled to be part of a series about the future.
“This project is about opening up the world to whatever these playwrights want to write about,” she says. “A Black future can be about anything and anywhere. And it’s a delight to have this room to stretch. I feel like we’re going to see so many different stories.”