Other Side of the Game
Obsidian Theatre/Cahoots Theatre
Written by Amanda Parris. Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams. At the Aki Studio in the Daniels Spectrum. Runs until November 5.
The fire alarm went off in the middle of the opening night performance of Other Side of the Game. First there was a garbled voice that came on the PA system in the middle of a scene, mumbling something about the noise. The wonderful actors continued. Then the alarm actually sounded. There was confusion as to what to do. Eventually we were led outside, but even then no one seemed to know if it was a real alarm or a test. After several minutes, it went quiet. No fire trucks arrived. We were let back in the theatre, still unsure about what had taken place.
In a way, this confusion as to what was going on also applies to the play. While playwright Amanda Parris intended to showcase the dispiriting experience black men and women have, as her characters navigate various social services, the prison system, work and daycare issues, and a general sense of being ignored or forgotten, she has not entirely succeeded.
Parris has created some very strong female characters, each with a myriad of problems, and each doing the best they can. One, for example, is a hardworking single mother dedicated to the revolution. Through bracing dialogue—especially between Shevon (Shakura Dickson) and Nicole (Virgilia Griffith), with their own particular slang and forms of expression—we get a sense of these women and their struggles. Parris has chosen not to apply the same diligence in creating multi-dimensional male characters. For example, Khalil (Ryan Rosery) is a revolutionary, but when he’s asked what he’s hoping to build up and create, he is interrupted before he can answer. Devonte (also Ryan Rosery) wants to finish high school, but his social worker says he should learn a trade instead. He balks at that suggestion, but doesn’t express why. Parris’s choice to not have these men respond prevents me from understanding them fully, making the narrative less compelling.
The play jumped between two storylines, and I wasn’t sure where either was taking place. There are enough American references throughout that I thought we were in the States, but there are also references to places like Christie Pits in Toronto. I have to wonder if these characters are American who came to Toronto to live.
Director Nigel Shawn Williams and his valiant cast do wonders to carry this play. The five actors come onstage holding folding metal chairs. They slam them down, sit in them, and stare at us for a long minute. Then, on cue, they scream in frustration, their arms and legs flailing. And then, just as quickly, they return to their still and silent stare. After several minutes they cover their faces with their hands, in despair. They twitch. They look over their shoulders. And then they sit and stare.
This choreographed mime-display perfectly illuminates their lives: the endless waiting for appointments or to see loved ones in prison; the total frustration communicated by their screams; the look over the shoulder as if being followed. These movements and sounds are so evocative, exposing this crushing, disappointing world.
Williams establishes the tightness of this world between characters as well—sometimes they are nose-to-nose in anger, one person staring down the other. The cast is exemplary. Shakura Dickson and Virgilia Griffith are standouts, each actor playing two characters. They don’t change costumes or wigs or makeup. It’s just a change of accent and stance, and instantly you are looking at a woman of a different class, living under different circumstances.
Other Side of the Game is Parris’s first play. Her intentions to illuminate the stories of people who are forgotten or marginalized are admirable. Parris has a story to tell. That story could really benefit from more fleshed out characters and a clearer plot. A bit more rigour, please.
For tickets or more information, click here.
To read Amanda Parris’s article on trying to authentically capture the cadence and rhythms of speech of young Black residents of west-end Toronto, click here.