BWW Review: THE NEGROES ARE CONGREGATING Is A Powerful Examination Of Black Culture And Experience
PIECE OF MINE Arts and Theatre Passe Muraille's THE NEGROES ARE CONGREGATING is a wickedly smart, biting examination of what it's like to be a Black person in Toronto today. Through a series of vignettes, the three-person ensemble transform into dozens of characters to portray scenes focused on subjects like police brutality, racial profiling, and micro aggressions.
With subject matter like this, it would be easy and understandable for the darker elements of the work to overwhelm. Thankfully, the variety of the ensemble's strengths helps to lift the piece to something that can discuss serious topics with black humour.
Actors Christopher Bautista, Christopher Parker, and Uche Ama navigate the challenge of THE NEGROES ARE CONGREGATING with ease; while playwright and director Natasha Adiyana Morris' script is packed with poetic voices and timely scenarios, it's up to Bautista, Parker and Ama to breathe life into them. Bautista is a brilliant dramatic presence, delivering monologues and dialogue with equal passion; he also dips into comedy in one of the show's most attention-grabbing scenes, an ally-conference where Bautista and Parker emulate white men giving the flashiest, most awkward Ted Talk. The scene is funny at surface value, from Parker's entrance clapping on the off-beats and Bautista's huge egotistical presence; but under the loud presentation, Morris' script hits hard. Truths about the appropriation of Black culture and the modern-enslavement of Black people in work environments are among topics brought up, and it's a gripping moment in a production where each scene speaks more truth than the last.
Ama is a knockout in her many roles; from a reimagined Winnie Mandela to a young activist to a woman who has to navigate a sea of endless pick-up lines and harassment, Ama delivers. She's got a natural rhythm to her delivery, which works well with the more poetic aspects of the script. And although the majority of her roles are tinged in a more serious light, she handled comedy just as well. Her delivery as the titular character of the children's book Little Red Hen is hilarious, and she goes full force in a scene about weaves that had the opening night audience completely captivated.
While most characters only exist within one scene, the connection between ideas provides a line through the storylines that really ties concepts together. Sometimes a character returns with little fanfare, but has a huge impact - like in the heart wrenching scene about a young Black man being pulled over by a Black police officer. Other times, it's a much clearer connection from scene to scene, like Bautista's engineer tracing the path of his success over the course of the show.
THE NEGROES ARE CONGREGATING is timely, urgent, and given the open discussions held at the end of each show during its run, is meant to get people talking. It doesn't pick a side - it lets audience members come in with their individual experiences and offers a look into situations that could be extremely relatable or completely unthinkable. As a white woman, I knew THE NEGROES ARE CONGREGATING was not going to represent my experience, but it wasn't made for me. I can only base the accuracy of the scenes on what I see in the news, read on social media, or hear from people with first-hand knowledge; regardless, this is a work that presents timely issues and ideas in a refreshingly honest approach, and that's what makes it as effective and intriguing a work as it is.
PIECE OF MINE Arts and Theatre Passe Muraille's THE NEGROES ARE CONGREGATING runs through March 14 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.passemuraille.ca/19-20-season-shows/the-negroes-are-congregating/
Photo credit: Sean Dean Brown