October 15, 2019

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Laughs pulled out of troubling situation in provocative comedic drama

RMTC Warehouse opener starts season off with a bang

Lila (Beverly Ndukwu) blames playwright Tim Bernbaum (Tom Keenan) for making her bad situation worse. (Dylan Hewlett)

Lila (Beverly Ndukwu) blames playwright Tim Bernbaum (Tom Keenan) for making her bad situation worse. (Dylan Hewlett)

You don't go to a play about a black police officer shooting an unarmed black teenager expecting loads of laughs.

But Bang Bang, Toronto playwright Kat Sandler's season opener at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse, is one of the funniest things to hit local stages in ages — perhaps even more so because the laughs are pulled out of a deeply uncomfortable situation.

In the 135-minute comedic drama (including one intermission), Beverly Ndukwu plays Lila Hines, a depressed ex-cop who's living with her mother, Karen (Warona Setshwaelo, a master of the dry put-down) in the aftermath of her on-the-job shooting of a black kid.

Their not-so-peaceful solitude is interrupted by the arrival of playwright Tim Bernbaum (Tom Keenan, all nervous energy and misplaced solicitude). Without Lila's permission or input, he penned a moderately successful play, Hands Up, about the incident (or The Incident) and she blames him for making her bad situation worse with the added publicity.

You don't go to a play about a black police officer shooting an unarmed black teenager expecting loads of laughs.

But Bang Bang, Toronto playwright Kat Sandler's season opener at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse, is one of the funniest things to hit local stages in ages — perhaps even more so because the laughs are pulled out of a deeply uncomfortable situation.

In the 135-minute comedic drama (including one intermission), Beverly Ndukwu plays Lila Hines, a depressed ex-cop who's living with her mother, Karen (Warona Setshwaelo, a master of the dry put-down) in the aftermath of her on-the-job shooting of a black kid.

Their not-so-peaceful solitude is interrupted by the arrival of playwright Tim Bernbaum (Tom Keenan, all nervous energy and misplaced solicitude). Without Lila's permission or input, he penned a moderately successful play, Hands Up, about the incident (or The Incident) and she blames him for making her bad situation worse with the added publicity.

Bodyguard Tony (Alex Poch-Goldin), former child actor Jackie (Sébastien Heins), Tim (Tom Keenan) and Karen (Warona Setshwaelo) hash things out Bang Bang. (Dylan Hewlett)

Bodyguard Tony (Alex Poch-Goldin), former child actor Jackie (Sébastien Heins), Tim (Tom Keenan) and Karen (Warona Setshwaelo) hash things out Bang Bang. (Dylan Hewlett)

Unfortunately, Tim has more bad news: Hands Up is being made into a movie, starring grown-up Disney kid Jackie Savage, eager to move on from roles where he plays "guy who gets shot" and into the lead role of a complicated cop who does the shooting. Jackie wants to meet Lila to pick her brain.

Bang Bang delves into provocative territory and raises questions audience members may find discomfitting. Can a white author write about the black experience? Is there a difference between "based on" and "inspired by" when it comes to plumbing a real person's experiences for your art? And when art and commerce are intertwined, how can good intentions and sensitivity be balanced with the possibility of big payout?

There aren't any satisfying resolutions to those questions (nor should there be), but Sandler stirs the pot beautifully, causing us to question both our own "wokeness" and our knee-jerk reactions to situations that might not be as black-and-white as they appear.

Keenan shines as the hapless Tim, who can't see that he can be sad about a situation without making it about himself, or that his obsession with dash-cam footage of slain black men is like torture porn for well-meaning white people.

Sébastien Heins is excellent as Jackie, balancing the guileless confidence of a child star with the tremendous insecurity of an actor who fears he's on the D-list — plus the self-awareness of a black man who's only too familiar with police harassment.

Sébastien Heins is excellent as Jackie Savage, balancing confidence with the self-aware insecurity of an actor who fears he's on the D-list. (Dylan Hewlett)

Sébastien Heins is excellent as Jackie Savage, balancing confidence with the self-aware insecurity of an actor who fears he's on the D-list. (Dylan Hewlett)

As Tony Cappello, Jackie's security detail and a former cop, Alex Poch-Goldin imbues what could be a one-note "fuggedaboudit" comic character with sensitivity and depth (not to mention deft timing.)

In last season's WJT drama Intimate Apparel, Ndukwu had a radiant stillness that was magnetic. As Lila, however, she alternates between sullen sarcasm and manic bravado; it's tough to get a handle on her character (though, to be fair, her reluctance to commit to a redemption arc is part of the story).

Kelly Thornton, in her directorial debut with the Royal MTC, keeps this living-room play (the realistic set design is by Adam Parboosingh) kinetic despite the close quarters. When it feels claustrophobic, it's intentional — the emotions swelling to fill the stage — but it's never static. The overlapping dialogue occasionally calls to mind a Fox News show, with angry people yelling over each other, but it has a natural rhythm.

The work's second half is not as successful: there's a tonal shift toward seriousness in the script, but the energy onstage is still pitched quite high, making it feel more farcical than it should.

And the ending is a bit of a letdown, more of a whimper than a bang. But by then, Bang Bang has already delivered plenty of bang for your buck.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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