On Monday evening July 27th, hundreds of protestors for #BlackLivesMatter marched onto the Allen Expressway, one of the busiest highways in Toronto, and blocked rush-hour traffic for 2 hours.
Also on Monday evening July 27th, at the exact same time, a group of theatre artists gathered at the Storefront Theatre for the latest iteration of the political cabaret Wrecking Ball.
Which event did you hear about first?
Established in 2004 by Ross Manson and Jason Sherman, Wrecking Ball is a responsive evening of theatre, created in line with current headlines and rehearsed and presented within a short time frame. Although, the volunteer organization has gone through several teams of leadership, its mandate and style have remained the same. Theatre that is ripped from the headlines, to the page, and to the stage, in a guerrilla rough and ready way.
This particular evening of Wrecking Ball was curated around the theme (and hashtag) #DeadCoonTO. It was referencing the popularity of the tag #deadraccoonTO which went viral on July 9. This meme followed the discovery and subsequent ad-hoc memorial of a dead raccoon found on a busy Toronto street corner. Whether viewed as satirical or in earnest, people did respond to the sight of the raccoon, re-tweeting photos thousands of times, and even contributing to the memorial in person. The dead raccoon meme was highly criticized in light of the lack of internet response to the shooting of Andrew Loku by police, only a few days earlier on July 5.
Ironically, with the #BlackLivesMatter protest on the same evening as Wrecking Ball, #DeadCoonTO was looking to emulate the very thing it was criticizing. Gathered in the over-capacity Storefront, was our complicity in political performance merely mimicking a significant and useful response to injustice? As a community, does our ability to talk about and concern for real political issues only extend to the stage?
One of the newer elements of Wrecking Ball, is an open-mike feature called Time Bomb. Audiences are given one minute in which to rant about anything they want. Ringers are engaged by the organizers to bring some quality rants to the stage, but otherwise, it is open to any audience member who may speak on any subject. When their time is up, a joyful ‘bomb’ is projected and met with cheers. BOOM! It’s ragged but fun and democratic.
To create an atmosphere of encouragement for the Time Bombs, the organizers do a little call and response with the audience. It begins with the call, “Fuck you!” to which the audience responds with “Fuck YOU!”. And then it repeats, and so on until the audience is significantly riled up. Admittedly, I have been trying to watch my own swearing, so permission to do so in a different context is very freeing.
According to my seatmate, my calls of ‘Fuck you’ bordered on gleeful.
Intermission. People buy more drinks, schmooze, step out for a cigarette.
Near the stage, I crouch on the floor with writer and spoken word artist Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. First, we laugh and joke before our tone turns serious. We have cried together and in opposition at times, so it’s easy to get to the truth quickly in our conversations. She performs later – the closing act in fact. She’s worried because the evening has at times been satirical and funny. She didn’t want to bring the room down with her piece, which she calls ‘angry’. We look each other in the eyes. We agree. If we aren’t fucking angry, why are we here?
I sit and wait for the next half of the performance and think about anger. What is beyond angry? Is it art? It’s so pretentious a conceit, I almost throw up the vegan gluten-free donut I just ate. I check twitter.
We’re back. Another Time Bomb.
Fuck you, we say in order to create a safe space.
Do you feel safe when you read ‘fuck you’?
I respect the people on stage, the organizers who volunteer their time, the artists putting forth their raw work, the audience who have made a choice to come.
I stop saying it.
I’m a writer. Words mean something.
It occurred to me much later, that I was reminded of an acting exercise from theatre school. Repeat until you really meant what you were saying. Repeat until you believe the words. Repeat until your scene partner believes you. Repeat until it is true.
There is an inherent violence in the words. Does knowing we are saying it in order to create a safe space change the power of the words? As the evening continued, the number of people willing to rant dwindled. Did they feel safe? Or were they filled with other emotions? Despair. Helplessness. Futility. Inadequacy.
I check twitter. The #BlackLivesMatter blockade on Allen Road had ended. Our evening was coming to a close too, ending with Donna-Michelle. She was not wrong. She brought her anger. The lights fade. The evening is over. Everyone cheers.
I am uncharacteristically quiet. I want to be myself. I escape quickly.
What is the point of doing these quickly thrown together works? What actual good is placing our political questions onto a stage? What is the actual point when there are people who directly and actively work to address injustice? Maybe Wrecking Ball is not for anyone else but our community. Maybe it is simply our time, our space to say fuck you. Maybe, like a pressure valve, we have to say it. Maybe, we need this space for our rage, and not just us in theatre, but society too. Rage is chaotic and often destructive. But I would also argue that this makes it inherently creative at its core.
Wrecking Ball to me, is not a fuse, but a pilot light. Lit just a little. Just enough. Just enough to keep everything going. Just enough to remind and connect us with the rage within. Just enough light to keep going.
We all know what happens when there is too much and it become unmanageable – too much rage, too much fuel –