Review: First Day Back

FIRST DAY BACK by Rob Salerno (Ten Foot Pole). At the Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor West). Runs to June 27,.

FIRST DAY BACK by Rob Salerno (Ten Foot Pole). At the Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor West). Runs to June 27, Thursday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $10-$25. Rating: NNN

One of the strengths of writer/performer Rob Salernos First Day Back is the range of attitudes it depicts toward homophobic and other school bullying.

Following the suicide of Ollie, an out gay Grade 9 Oshawa student who was into drama and singing, teacher Mr. McKenzie sets up a safe space for the students to discuss the death and how to stop similar incidents. The audience become students in the classroom Salerno plays McKenzie as well as a number of Ollies peers.

The teacher wishes hed been more aware of warning signs the self-centred class president thinks a speech about tolerance would help Ollies lab partner, who doesnt think there are any other queer students in the school, recalls how nasty comments about Ollie soiled him as well.

The comments and memories become more personal when Layla talks about her friend. She bonded with Ollie when he admired her shoes, and together they talked about setting up a Rainbow Club.

The ostracism Ollie faced is illustrated in the views of Nathan, a long-time acquaintance who saw him as girly and believes that a boy becomes a man by fighting back. Andrew, who like Ollie isnt athletic though he isnt gay, understands some of what Ollie went through and makes one of the shows most telling comments: if the bullying, physical and verbal, had been directed at an adult, the recipient wouldnt have put up with it, and criminal charges would have been laid.

The most fascinating character, though, is hockey player Jesse, part of the group who beat Ollie up. Blaming Ollie for the violence, he reveals his own insecurities and sense of victimization.

The playwright cleverly structures the hour-long show so we meet Ollie himself at the end. In a video made just before his first day of high school, he decides to be public about his sexuality. Optimistic, singing Lady Gaga and wearing a pink boa, he sees Glees Kurt Hummel as a model and looks forward to reinventing himself and leading a happier life.

Though it would help to know a bit more about some of Ollies fellow students, Salerno and director Steven Gallagher present each with emotional truth. You can see Laylas tears and, maybe surprisingly, Jesses, too, while Nathan bubbles with frustration.

First Day Back offers no answers, but its multiple viewpoints make the discussion richly thoughtful. One of the first things youll notice on the teachers desk is a book titled Why We Hate.

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