OBAABERIMA created and performed by Tawiah M’carthy, directed by Evalyn Parry (Buddies in Bad Times, 12 Alexander). To October 7, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. Pwyc-$37. 416-975-9130. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Coming out to oneself can be as hard as sharing the truth with others.
Revelations of both sorts are ongoing concerns for Agyeman, the central figure in Obaaberima. Tawiah M'carthy's solo show opens the Buddies season.
In his hometown in Ghana, the eight-year-old Agyeman secretly dresses in his mother's clothes and high heels; at school he's taunted as "obaaberima" (girl-boy). Later, as a teen and with the help of Opayin, a tailor, he discovers that both Ghanaian legend and the Genesis creation story recognize a person's masculine and feminine sides.
Agyeman explores his feminine aspect - he names her Sibongile - with Opayin, while he's also drawn to a sophisticated fellow student, Nana Osei, and discovers the pleasures of male-male sex.
Devastated when both men withdraw from him, Agyeman moves to Canada to study law; here he finds himself caught emotionally between a born-again Ghanaian woman and a gay Canadian man. His problems are compounded, since he has to deal not only with questions of sexuality and who attracts him but also with a culture that sees him as "the ultimate outsider."
Agyeman can't move on with his life until he's honest with himself and others.
Taking the audience on Agyeman's journey, the always-engaging M'carthy skillfully differentiates the play's characters physically and vocally. Just as importantly, the characters' emotions always feel true; we know them as much by what they say as what they leave unsaid. Agyeman's introduction to sex, for instance, is a delicate and almost wordless scene.
Agyeman has an innocence and tentativeness for most of the show; the portrayal is in sharp contrast to the self-assured Sibongile's power in her dual roles as the self-repressed Agyeman's alter-ego and the tale's narrator.
But watch for the touch of vulnerability M'carthy gives to Sibongile on her final exit; she's a woman with sides we have yet to see.
Song, dance and music enrich the storytelling, with Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison providing live accompaniment on African and Western instruments. The key musical element is a percussive heartbeat that drives the action forward.
M'carthy's script cleverly parallels the emotional triangles in which Agyeman finds himself first in Ghana and later in Canada. But while the first part is solidly in place, the characters we meet in Canada could use further fleshing out.
Camellia Koo's set and costume design and Michelle Ramsay's lighting give the narrative further nuance. The set's doorways represent the prison where the play begins and ends, but its entrances also suggest the life alternatives open to Agyeman.
It's exciting to see a young theatre artist like M'carthy own the stage, especially in a resonant script that offers a complex look at human sexuality. As Sibongile says near the end of the show, referring to that intricacy, "there is no name for who I am."