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Playwright rescues forgotten or misunderstood women from history and calls out T.O.'s white artistic directors who say there are no good scripts by writers of colour
DON’T TALK TO ME LIKE I’M YOUR WIFE by Andrea Scott, directed by Andrew Lamb, with Kimwun Perehinec, Lisa Karen Cox, David Christo and Paula Wing. Presented by Call Me Scotty Productions and SummerWorks at the Theatre Centre Mainspace. August 4 at 7:15 pm, August 6 at 6:30 pm, August 9 at 5 pm, August 10 at 6:45 pm, August 11 at 8 pm, August 13 at 4 pm, August 14 at 8:45 pm. summerworks.ca.
Andrea Scott is proving Black lives matter in the theatre.
After all, it’s one of the reasons why she became a playwright.
“You know what they say about writing the book you want to read?” says Scott. “Well, I decided to write plays with characters I definitely wasn’t seeing onstage.”
Her 2013 SummerWorks play, Eating Pomegranates Naked, concerned relationships, race and pregnancy. In last year’s festival hit Better Angels: A Parable, a comfortable white couple hire a Ghanaian nanny/housekeeper and end up imprisoning her. And at this year’s festival, her most ambitious play yet, Don’t Talk To Me Like I’m Your Wife, looks back at the final days of so-called femme fatale Mata Hari, as well as France’s colonialism in Africa and modern-day political correctness in academia.
All feature strong, fierce roles for Black women.
Even with all the talk about the need for diversity in the theatre, Scott says many companies turned down Better Angels, which has since gone on to have multiple lives. Besides winning SummerWorks’s best production prize last year (which got her a guaranteed spot at this year’s festival), the play was part of Idle Muse Theatre’s Athena Festival in Chicago last winter, is upcoming at Vancouver’s Rumble Theatre this fall and may be produced by an Albany, New York, theatre company, too.
She simultaneously fumes and laughs over the artistic director of a theatre company who, when the issue of the unbearable whiteness of many companies’ seasons comes up, said that he can’t find scripts by women of colour.
“With all due respect,” she says, “Eating Pomegranates Naked had a cast of five that was multiracial. It did well. Better Angels had a multiracial cast. It won production of the year, got lots of press. Has my phone rung? I’m not hiding, you know, I’m quite visible! So,” she says, flatly, “people are making a choice not to program certain things.”
Snap! Still, you get the sense that Scott would rather not stew over the negative.
“I am keeping my head down and continuing to write. I can’t remember who originally said it, but I love the expression: ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ That’s what I’m trying to do.”
First up is the work that she has been calling “the Mata Hari play,” a shorthand title provided by her friend David in the old-school Wellesley-and-Yonge Coach House diner, where we’re currently sitting over breakfast.
Scott’s interest in the controversial figure goes back a couple of years when she took part in a b current festival reading of Harriet’s Daughter. She played a woman obsessed with Mata Hari, so to understand her character better she embarked on research. Mata Hari was a historical figure who was a lightning rod for many fascinating issues: sexual and economic freedom, class, slut shaming, colonialism.
Sharing a cell with Mata Hari – born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands – is another intriguing figure, an African prostitute the actor in the role, Lisa Karen Cox, also plays a modern-day single mom who takes a class in women’s studies, where she argues with the white professor about Mata Hari’s significance.
“I wondered, ‘What did Mata Hari talk about the day before she died?'” says Scott. “When we look back at history and read books set in certain time periods, we never see people of colour. We’re never portrayed unless we’re a plot point or there to make somebody look better. I wanted a three-dimensional woman who could serve as almost a foil to Mata Hari and have just as many awful problems, joys and funny lines as her.”
And her race was a given.
“France colonized so many places in Africa that there were lots of Black people in France at the time, but no one ever talks about that,” she says. “I thought it would be interesting to put a Black woman in that cell and see her relationship with this other person, a Dutch woman appropriating a South Asian culture.”
Between mouthfuls of home fries and sausage, she shows me her notebook, filled with fundraising ideas, monologues from scripts-in-progress and other lightbulb moments. She has a ton of them.
“In the middle of writing this play, I came up with a monologue from the perspective of one of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram,” she says. “I’d read in the Times that girls were being used as suicide bombers. People were horrified by it, but I started researching and getting into the mind of one of these girls. If I were a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram, if I’d been raped repeatedly for months and they told me they’d make me a suicide bomber, I’d say, ‘Yes. Anything to escape this.’
“So I wrote a scene. I even have a title: Before They Stole Our Names. But I don’t have time to work on it. I had to put it away.”
She then rattles off the other scripts she’s working on: Decimation, inspired by the life and work of Dr. Oswald Withrow, an early 1900s Toronto physician who performed abortions on women he thought unfit to be mothers: Indigenous women, “feeble-minded” women, biracial women. And then there’s Almost Belonging, a play about Black Lives Matter, riots and what Toronto was like at the turn of the 20th century.
Scott has a real knack for hot-button issues. Her first script, the solo show Damaged, was about a transgender woman. She wrote it six years ago, well before the issue became a common topic.
“It was based on my friend Lillian, who gave me her blessing and the information to write this story,” she says, sensitive about appropriation.
Trans issues slut shaming Black lives matter eugenics – these are bold themes, and as a producer as well as a writer, Scott knows they could find an audience.
“How can you not talk about these issues when you’re a woman who writes?” she says, laughing. “I could write fluffy plays. Actually, scratch that. I wouldn’t know how. Somebody asked me to write a comedy a few years ago, and I said, ‘I can’t do that. I can write a serious play with funny moments, but I can’t write a comedy. It’s too hard.'”
She’s also not afraid to integrate bits of her personal life into her work. The title for her SummerWorks play came when she witnessed a male friend talking with his then wife in a way that was rude and condescending.
“I remember thinking at the time, ‘Man, I would never put up with that.’ So when I learned many months later that they had separated, I wasn’t surprised. And when he and I would have a disagreement about something, he kept interrupting me and being very patronizing. My first instinct was to say, ‘Don’t talk to me like I’m your wife.’ But I thought, ‘No, I can’t say that because it would be rude.’ But I knew one day I’d use it for something.”
Throughout our talk, one thing becomes clear. Scott has a bit of magic about her. It’s not just her ability to sell an idea or line. She believes it, and she’ll make you a believer yourself. It might be her experience in the corporate world showing. But more likely it’s something innate.
Midway through our talk, another diner patron, an older trans woman, comes over and asks to meet her.
“Are you a public speaker?” she says. “You should be. I agree with everything you’ve said.” She asks for a hug. The two embrace. I tell her about Scott’s SummerWorks show.
Yes, magic and human connection are still possible in the world, as long as Andrea Scott’s around.
SUMMERWORKS PERFORMANCE FESTIVAL August 4 to 14 at Artscape Sandbox (301 Adelaide West), Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst), Scotiabank Studio Theatre (6 Noble), the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen West), and various site-specific venues. $15, passes available. 416-320-5779, summerworks.ca.
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