Off the bat: a Redbone Coonhound is a real breed, an American hunting dog with floppy ears and long limbs.
Incidentally, the breed name, though innocuous to some, contains two racial slurs.
And thus begins Tarragon’s bold, blazing new play by Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton. Covering a wide range of issues pertaining to race — the intricacies of an interracial relationship, the Underground Railroad, white guilt — Redbone Coonhound strings together seemingly unrelated and often funny vignettes, oscillating between the distant and not-so-distant past and the present, resulting in a searing mosaic of what it’s like to be Black in North America.
The funniness of the play can’t be overstated: Redbone Coonhound swings hard, and under the direction of Micheline Chevrier with Kwaku Okyere it hits its targets. An opening sequence, about a mixed-race couple (Chala Hunter and Christopher Allen, modelled after real-life couple Lavoie and Newton) who encounters one of these hounds at the park, perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the 100-minute play. While we don’t see the dog, named John, we can hear him (and the bellows of his persistently stupid owners), and we can see plainly that he’s mauling Mike, who happens to be Black (played by a note-perfect Allen). Of course, say the dog’s owners, that’s just a coincidence, just like John’s breed name. But the couple’s cluelessness pierces through any niceties — and there’s just no excuse to be clueless about racial politics and social cues anymore.
The following vignettes are similarly complex: funny scenarios imbued with societal commentary, or heavy historical moments overlain with strong aesthetic choices. A scene about the Underground Railroad ends with a hysterical, surprising rap from Lucinda Davis as Harriet Tubman. A later moment shows the untimely demise of a sacrificial Karen, played to great melodramatic heights by Deborah Drakeford.
Chevrier and Okyere’s smart directorial choices enhance a script which feels its full, intermission-less length. While the vignettes are consistently interesting in terms of their content, they can run long, with relatively little diversity of duration to keep the pacing fresh. That said, Chevrier and Okyere keep things rolling with zippy transitions between scenes, including some lovely animations of a Redbone Coonhound in motion by Dezmond Arnkvarn. Frank Donato’s projection designs, too, of key words and images from the play, amplify the themes put forth by Lavoie and Newton.
Jawon Kong’s set is pure Tarragon, all modern lines and stark edges, not dissimilar to that of the recent Post-Democracy or 2020’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Nalo Soyini Bruce’s costumes effectively suggest occupation, social status, and age, though curiously, everyone onstage wears red sneakers, a compelling choice but one which is never explained. Perhaps the red shoes and their laces gesture towards skinhead shoelace culture — a choice which would align with the histories and symbols woven throughout the play — but there’s no way to know for sure.
Redbone Coonhound asks much of its audience, and in turn, on opening night, it seemed the audience asked things back. “Is it really okay to laugh at that?,” we seemed to say during what felt like a tentative opening twenty minutes, offering scattered titters and murmurs to early jokes. But the play, though loaded with difficult conversations and slurs, seems to say loudly, “yes, you can laugh at these silly scenarios, but you need to think hard about them, too.” Perhaps the funniness of the play will open up larger discourse on the themes at hand, those of identity, racism, and community. Maybe laughter is the common denominator that can lead to productive conversations on race — and laughter (more like uproarious guffaws) is certainly what we got on opening night.
Redbone Coonhound shows great promise as a script, and it’s a damn good vessel for performances from Kwesi Ameyaw, Brian Dooley, and Jesse Dwyre, as well as Davis, Drakeford, Allen, and Hunter. For its utilization of filmic aesthetics, one might think it has a promising future onscreen as a TV series or film. For now, though, it’s a desperately funny play with a slight pacing problem, a daring satire that feels like the Canadian response to Broadway’s equally searing dramedy about Blackness, A Strange Loop. Such a satire seems well overdue, and you should take a peek (in either Toronto or Montreal — the play has a “rolling opening,” meaning premieres in multiple Canadian cities). This is how comedy is done.
Redbone Coonhound runs at Tarragon Theatre February 7 through March 5, 2023.