Thursday, March 21, 2013

First-Person: Director Philip Akin on The Whipping Man (Toronto)

Thomas Olajide and Brett Donahue (photo credit: Keith Barker)

Complications of Biblical Proprotions
as with most sea changes some people swim and others sink
by Philip Akin
[Philip Akin has been acting and directing for over 30 years. In 2000, he was a founding member of Obsidian Theatre, Canada’s leading black theatre company, and has served as its Artistic Director since 2006. In this role, he has worked tirelessly to provide opportunities and guidance for emerging artists. In 2002, he was part of the team that launched the Obsidian Mentor/Apprentice Program, a one-of-a-kind program that has so far helped 31 black artists embark on exciting careers as directors, dramaturges, producers, production managers, lighting, set and costume designers with some of the most established performing arts companies nationwide.]
It always seems like a surprise to me that Obsidian ended up doing a season based on freedom and what it means with two plays that have whips as central characters. I mean I am the guy who wouldn't let people in my first playwrights units write about immigrating to Canada, growing up Black in any small Canadian town, slavery or the Underground Railroad. I did that because I always believed that Black Theatre was being defined by just those subjects and I wanted to widen the vision as it were.

The play has been a profound shock to see in previews.

So this season ended up looking like it would fit into those proscribed categories but in fact they don't quite. From an historical point of view The Whipping Man seems to be a bit of a twist on the old slave owner coming home after the Civil War and having to deal with former slaves. But when that somewhat obvious storyline gets woven around a Jewish slave owner who raised their slaves to be Jewish you now have a complication of Biblical proportions. Well Old Testament or Torah proportions anyway.

The play has been a profound shock to see in previews. I pretty much figured out how a Gentile audience might react but nothing prepared me for the impact to a Jewish one. An older gentleman  engaged me in conversation at intermission and said how “he didn't know how to feel about the Black slaves speaking Yiddish”. He was sincerely shaken by a thought that had never before occurred to him. To see a modern day audience attempt to deal with what they thought they knew and their own history and their own self image and have that questioned in a way that engages them is a fascinating thing.

This play shifts the world for a lot of people. And isn't that what we as theatre artists need to do? 

Freedom is such an elusive thing. Much like the Scarlet Pimpernel of old: caught out of the corner of one's eye but rarely captured. Freedom seems to be something that we yearn for on so many levels but how often are we actually prepared for it when it arrives. The Whipping Man gives a snap shot of that crucial moment in time and as with most sea changes some people swim and others sink.

I love plays that focus us inexorably on those crucial moments in time. That dive deep and open up big questions. I love that both of our plays this season do not dwell in the cult of the answer but reside firmly in the cult of the question. And it is with those questions that we bring who we are into the theatre and are forced to engage one on one with what is being asked.

March 16 - April 14

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