Africanadian Playwrights Festival opens Tuesday (April 22) and runs to April 27, includes book launch, performances and readings. Various locations. $5-$15, passes $25-$100. 416-973-4000. www.africanadian.com Rating: NNNNN
Andrew Moodie is choosing his words carefully. The normally smooth-talking playwright/actor is discussing diversity in Canadian theatre. A misplaced word could result in everything from a bruised ego to temporary unemployment."Canadian theatres don't necessarily bend over backwards to bring in new cultures," he begins.
Pause. "Regardless of whether they're Jamaican, East Asian or... Polish."
Slight retreat and clarification. "Some theatres, like Passe Muraille and Factory, try harder."
Positive solution. "But the more young artists we have from different cultures making theatre, the more people will realize there's a community there. On a basic economic level, these people will pay money to see a show."
Welcome to the minefield known as cultural politics -- one issue at the forefront of the AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival, which kicks off Tuesday (April 22) as part of World Stage.
The six-day fest includes readings, performances and the book launch of Testifyin': Contemporary African Canadian Drama, Volume II.
But just because it's a celebratory event, don't expect a week of black-on-black back-patting. There's lots to do. Definitions to be worked out.
For instance, what does it mean to be an AfriCanadian playwright?
"It's about representing my multiplicity," offers d'bi.young, an emerging playwright (she co-wrote the SummerWorks hit yagayah), dub poet and actor.
"I was born and raised in Jamaica, educated in Montreal. Being an AfriCanadian playwright means I address all these facets of my reality."
Moodie, born in Toronto and whose parents emigrated from Jamaica, says black Canadian playwrights differ from their American counterparts.
"The black American experience is very specific, and it's well told," says Moodie. "Now it's time for us to tell our history."
Moodie brings up a crucial issue. Do cultural groups have a responsibility to interweave their lesser-known histories into their art? The Language Of The Heart, his newest play, gets a workshop at the festival on April 26. It's a musical tale of love and redemption based on a novel by Wallace Thurman, a member of the Harlem Renaissance.
But what does Harlem in the 1920s have to do with the black Canadian experience?
"If you write a play that's contemporary, it's just as historical as if you set it in the past," says Moodie, who broke onto the scene in 1995 with Riot, set against the backdrop of the Rodney King riots in L.A.
"You can't help but chronicle history. Even if in your play you never bring up the fact that you're African-Canadian, even if you're talking about mathematics. The way you express things is very specific to your experience."
Young also argues that AfriCanadian history isn't confined to textbooks.
"We run the risk of thinking that history is only about people who've been here for 50 or 100 years," she says. "You can't say that AfriCanadian history is only about domestic workers or the underground railroad. History is the people who are coming over on a plane right now."
Young draws on the literary and theatrical traditions she grew up with in Jamaica, like pantomime and street theatre. Her mother is acclaimed dub poet Anilia Soyinka.
"I'm interested in investigating diasporic theatrical traditions that haven't been legitimized here," says young.
Both Moodie and young agree that AfriCanadian theatre audiences should be diverse, yet there are some lines that only black Canadians will find funny.
"The moment a character says "Ras,' a curse word for Rastafarian, you'll have people laughing," says Moodie. Young's titled her next play Blood Clot, another trigger word, which literally comes from the phrase "blood cloth," a rag used by a menstruating woman.
"In a lot of cultures curse words refer to women's bodies. I'm trying to reclaim the ways our bodies are disrespected," she explains.
Despite the themes and subject matter, neither playwright wants his or her work only to speak to black audiences.
"It's important to me that black people come, because my work is a lot about healing within communities," says young. "You should be able to do that and not alienate others. I take so much from First Nations struggles; there's so much I can identify with."
But they also want to speak to as big an audience as possible -- something they don't see happening on Canada's biggest theatrical stage, Stratford. In 1995, Moodie says he was the only person of colour in an entire theatre.
"Since I've gone, has there been a native or Asian actor in a lead role?" asks Moodie, who's considering filing a formal complaint with Equity. "I don't think so."