By Saga Collectif
Directed by Jonathan Seinen
A Buddies in Bad Times Production, March 1-11, 2018
Having already been a smash hit in 2016 and completed a three-city tour to Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal, Black Boys is back for a brief run at Buddies. Offering itself (with tongue in cheek) as “a spiritual experience,” it is a 95-minute hybrid of dance, monologue, and discursive debate, circumscribed by the personal experiences of three black gay males in a predominantly white heterosexual world. The three are Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, a male with one black daddy and three white parents; Ghanaian-born Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy; and Thomas Olajide from Vancouver. The sparse décor (movable, gauzy sliding panels), restrained but effective lighting by Jareth Li, and strategic use of exotic costuming by Rachel Forbes later in the piece allow for greater sonic or vocal registers, and the two standout features are movement and monologue, especially with Virgilia Griffith’s dynamic choreography for solos and pas de deux (especially involving M’Carthy and Olajide).
Overall, it is fair to say that the piece is a spiritual experience, though clearly not in a religious sense. The church sequence is a hilarious parody of fundamentalist extremism and homophobia). In a well-wrought sequence about the history of “Amazing Grace,” the show hits a peak which is not, alas, held for long. Nevertheless, uneven though it is, what Black Boys manages to be a generally affecting subversive cross-genre entertainment—one that uses autobiography, sociology, politics, and sex as raw material with which to subvert the normal performative modes of gender, sexuality, and race. Anger is necessary fuel, and the black bodies become weapons of comment, protest, and attack. Sonic distortions (sound and video design by Stephen Surlin) conspire with gestural distortions to create an alluring complex, and there is ample comedy to balance the sombre, seedy, and troubling.
Jackman-Torkoff loves his own comedy, whether stripping totally early in the show, wearing a woman’s dress (rather badly), or parodying Brando’s cry for Stella from Streetcar. M’Carthy looks as appealing as black licorice, and has a voice and movement that are supple, sweet and sensuous. Olajide is sex and sin, racial pride and defiance rolled into one irresistible package. Trouble is that Black Boys over-extends itself, as some of the riffs go on with diminishing returns, and there are moments of hysteria as lean, loose-limbed Jackman-Torkoff is frequently self-indulgent in movement and vocal delivery to the point of grotesque exaggeration. However, he is not without merit, and he is more than balanced by M’Carthy’s incarnation of post-colonial African shame and, best of all, Olajide’s physical elegance and sensuality married to a potent vocal delivery that, in one stunning monologue about his black “frame” in a white “gallery,” that deploys well-wrought rhymes, crystallizes what this piece could have been as art rather than as interesting, provocative didacticism.