“Racism is a morally corrupt and vicious belief system,” asserts Natasha Adiyana Morris. “We have to call it what it is.” This is one of the aims of Morris’ The Negroes Are Congregating, produced by Piece of Mine Arts and currently on stage at Theatre Passe Muraille. The play explores generational internalized racism, and is a provocative, pointed and compelling calling out of the ideology of anti-Black racism.
The piece, which Morris also directs, grew from her curiosity about the ways in which “we, people of African descent, congregate, build and unify. There have been and continue to be infinite tactics of systemic oppression that are inflicted upon us: those that have prevailed and those that will never break us. There are also division and self-sabotaging mentalities that affect our progression as a people, with many that adopt negative stereotypes and many who reject them.” With such a range of responses, it is “vital to look at all sides to understand the modern-day Black experience”.
Described as an “unapologetic and impolite perspective” about the ongoing effects of racism in Canada and around the world, The Negroes Are Congregating is a fusion of spoken word, satire, and soulful dialect through which audiences experience “raw truths” that provide an “understanding of what it means to be Black, proud, and ready.” In Morris’ experience, the conversation about this topic “just tends to be safe and non-specific”. It is problematic to lump non-white groups together, which is often done with the term people of colour, aka “P.O.C.”: “In a politically correct environment, I don’t see the difference between saying ‘coloured people’ (a no-no) versus the current and accepted term ‘people of colour.’ I can’t keep up with the confusion when many times we’re just referring to Black people.” As the title should make abundantly clear, “this play doesn’t beat around the bush”.
Not coincidentally, The Negroes Are Congregating began previews on the last day of February, observed widely as Black History Month. During February, school bulletin boards and reading programs focus prominent attention on Black history: most typically, well-known American figures like abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth; and civil rights advocates like Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges. The narratives of African Canadians do not figure as prominently, if at all. And this gap is helping to perpetuate anti-Black racism in Canada: “I think because we have African American history taught with great pride, we forget that African Canadian narratives and role models are missing. At the same time, Black folks take up a small percentage of this country, and so we often feel invisible in the Canadian fabric. But when you look at our contributions, such as Caribana, the largest festival in North America, I think our achievements are massive but just played down.”
Morris’ simple hope is that the play will allow audiences to have a “human understanding”: “From overt violence to microaggressions, it is a no-brainer how someone will feel to be judged and targeted because of the colour of their skin. At the same time, we can celebrate the milestones of individuals and communities that surpass the odds and create their own fate.”
The current production of The Negroes Are Congregating follows an acclaimed run at SummerWorks 2018 and a highly successful US tour. The current cast, Christopher Parker, Christopher Bautista, Uche Ama, are brand new and had never seen the show prior to this production. Parker and Bautista are American-born and raised, and have been living in Canada for five years each. “As much as we say Toronto/Canadian culture is hard to define, the cultural differences of language, traditions, customs, etc. have had to be broken down in many of the scenes,” Morris notes. “That experience has been positively affirming for me” – and this affirmation reflects audience experience of the show as well. The March 5 performance was reserved exclusively for Black audience members, to provide Black theatre-goers a space to see a show by them and for them. It sold out completely.
Clearly, the play’s exploration of anti-Black racism is relatable, not to mention urgent in our current divisive climate. Still, Morris wants to be clear that The Negroes Are Congregating is not a diatribe. It is an interactive performance piece that is meant to be experienced: “It is political, and it is also hilarious. It is troubling, and it is soothing. I’ve made space to breathe and space to be tense. I’d love to know if I’ve hit the mark, focusing on a topic that is so hard to discuss.”
Discussion is, in fact, the goal. Each performance of The Negroes Are Congregating includes a post-show discussion, to provide an opportunity for audiences to remain in the space, reflect, and have a conversation. The “unapologetic” Morris has a lot to say, and she’s eager to hear what audiences have to say in response.
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What: The Negroes Are Congregating, Written and Directed by Natasha Adiyana Morris┃ Produced and Production Managed by Troy De Four┃Dramaturgy by Donna Michelle St Bernard and Lincoln Anthony Blades┃Stage Management by Christie Maingot┃Production Design/Wardrobe Design by Nalo Soyini Bruce┃Lighting Design by Lance Braithwaite
Cast: Christopher Parker, Christopher Bautista, Uche Ama
When: On stage until March 14, 2020; Running Time: 90 minutes (65 minute show + a post-show discussion)
- Audio Described Performance – Fri. March 13 at 7:30 pm
- Relaxed Performance – Sat. March 14 at 2:00 pm
Where: Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: passemuraille.ca
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020