As she makes her debut as the artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Kelly Thornton opted to jump right into the creative fray, taking the directing helm of the opening Warehouse production Bang Bang, by Toronto playwright Kat Sandler.
● By Kat Sandler
● Tom Hendry Warehouse
● Oct. 2-19
Tickets: $22.25-$41.25 at 204-942-6537 or royalmtc.ca
It’s a tricky show that cuts close to the bone of the theatre world. It’s about Lila (Beverly Ndukwu), a black female police officer who goes on leave after she shoots an unarmed black youth. A white playwright (Tom Keenan) adapts that story into a sensational play, and when he gets an offer to turn his drama into a screenplay, he visits Lila to belatedly share his plans, leading to a comedy-laced confrontation about race, art and appropriation.
Sandler’s play premièred last year at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, and Thornton acknowledges that it’s very much a Toronto play by a Toronto playwright. But that doesn’t mean it won’t resonate in other cities.
"Kat has very smartly not set it anywhere in particular," Thornton says. "I said to my costume designer Joseph Abetria that I was interested in making her a local cop.
"It’s hard to say systemic racism and racial profiling only happen over there in the big city," she says. "I feel like that lets everybody off the hook.
"So she’s wearing a Winnipeg police uniform here and in Victoria, (it’s a co-production with the Belfry Theatre) we’ll move it to Vancouver. There’s a film scene there, there’s an indie theatre scene there, so she’ll be wearing a Vancouver police uniform in that production."
But given the play’s confrontation with racial issues, Thornton was hesitant to take it on without a representational voice behind the scenes.
"Am I the person that’s allowed to talk about these issues?" she says. "If you’re going to go into the dark woods and look at these issues, you’ve got to do your due diligence in all regards."
For that reason, Thornton drafted her newly appointed Royal MTC associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer as a consulting director on the play. The Winnipeg-born Dwyer came here in August from Toronto, where had served as the assistant artistic director of Tarragon Theatre, preceded by a similar role at Nightwood Theatre alongside Thornton.
As a black artist, Dwyer brought the benefit of personal experience, in addition to professional experience, to the show.
"As consulting director, I’m spending a lot of time analyzing the text and helping the actors with their choices and helping being an outside eye of sorts," Dwyer says. "One of the things I’m able to discuss thoroughly is the element of race, and the element of class within the play."
Dwyer spent some time writing and performing at Toronto’s Second City, and she says that experience helped guide her in a world where comedy is in the midst of a generational shift.
"It’s an interesting time for comedy, especially depending on how old you are, and what your experience of the world is," she says. "Across the board, as entertainers, as artists in theatre, we’re holding a mirror up to nature with the goal of the world becoming a better and more empathetic place.
"And as we move towards more empathy and more understanding, certain jokes don’t land the way they once did... because we’ve done that work," she says.
"The purpose of art is to move society forward. And with comedy, that’s one of the places where we really see that and feel that.
"We’re at a different place," Dwyer says. "And laughter is precious."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.