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Playing a modern-day Henry V, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah sounds a rallying cry for art and its role in activism
HENRY G20 conceived and directed by Christine Brubaker, written by Brubaker and Constantine X Anastasakis. Presented by the Henry G20 Group, produced in association with Luminato Festival Toronto and the Bentway Conservancy. Available from October 14 to November 11. Free. Online at luminatofestival.com
When the G20 Summit protests and police violence occurred in June 2010, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah was a second year theatre student living on the outskirts of the GTA. Now she’s playing one of Shakespeare’s finest roles – Henry V – adapted as a young activist leader during that pivotal political event.
“I was young enough to have a disconnect with what was really going on in the world, but old enough to know that something important was happening,” says the actor, writer and producer. “I remember some friends went downtown and got directly involved in the protests. And I also remember hearing a warning not to go downtown.”
Roberts-Abdullah, whose theatre credits include Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You and the national tour of Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet, has been involved in two workshops of the play, both performed in and around the Bentway.
She sees a clear link between the militaristic approach by the police 11 years ago and recent events.
“It feels like what happened in 2010 was a tectonic plate shifting, something that caused a seismic reaction,” she says. “We’re still feeling it today, especially over the past two years, with the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and the recent evictions of homeless encampments.”
The text, written by director Christine Brubaker and Constantine X Anastasakis, is a mix of Elizabethan and contemporary language. Roberts-Abdullah says Henry’s arc is very much a hero’s story, a coming-of-age tale about a political leader.
“Henry’s reluctant to take a position of leadership at first, but once she takes up the mantle she’s determined to see things through to the end.”
The Bard’s St. Crispin’s Day monologue is one of the most beloved and exciting passages in all of English literature. It gets a contemporary reworking that Roberts-Abdullah says should please local audiences.
“In this version it’s St. Spadinia – a play on Spadina,” she says. “I love what Christine and Constantine have done. They’ve taken something so iconic and framed it with an awareness that only a Torontonian would have.”
Once downloaded, Henry G20 can be experienced in several ways – as a pod play with just audio; enhanced with augmented reality which you can access by scanning with your smart phone; or as a walkabout piece in which you listen to the audio and scan life-sized posters at significant spots in the city.
Roberts-Abdullah began work on Henry G20 back in 2018, and its themes have informed a lot of the work she’s done since. That same year, she starred in Kat Sandler’s Bang Bang, which dealt with police violence. And earlier this year she premiered her short Defund, co-directed with Araya Mengesha, at TIFF.
“I think it’s telling that there’s a through line with the projects I’ve done,” she says. “I’m first and foremost a Black woman. I care about what affects my community and other marginalized communities, anyone pushed to the outskirts of society. There needs to be nuanced conversations about these issues. Which is why my film Defund leaves the conversation open as to what defunding the police might mean.
“I don’t consider myself a full-time activist, but I look for little forms of activism in the work I do,” she continues. “Art in itself is a type of activism. You can be impactful with the messages you relay through art. I try to be as conscious of that as I can.”