Toronto’s multicultural theatre is not having a moment (but it’s still awesome).
Going to the theatre always seemed like something I “should” do, to be a cultured person. Though I believe, in theory, that celebrated, centuries-old plays might have universal themes that are relevant to my life, in practice I was never inspired to actually go. Then last year, all of a sudden, the buzzy shows promised genuine entertainment and provocation, not just a chance to polish my rep. I started buying tickets.
Last May, Soulpepper mounted Kim’s Convenience, Ins Choi’s hit about two generations of Korean shop owners. September brought pomme is french for apple, a raunchy, funny look at sex and the single West Indian–Torontonian girl (two of them, actually: Liza Paul and Bahia Watson). And then, in November, the Tarragon staged A Brimful of Asha, in which Ravi Jain discussed arranged marriage with his real-life, super cute mom. All were excellent and played to packed houses. All are by local playwrights, none of whom are, well, white.
These plays resonate with me—born here, ate a wild agouti at my uncle’s house in Trinidad last month—because they think globally, act locally, and are about cross-cultural lives kinda like mine. Immigrants make appearances, but the shows are playful, caustic, and messy, not tidy Heritage Moments about my parents answering Trudeau’s siren call. New to the theatre scene, I assumed something must be happening. Maybe I was witnessing the results of some new diversity grant, a Moment in Multicultural Theatre. Nope. These shows weren’t catalyzed by a condescending financial transfusion. They exist because experienced artists kept telling their stories after being rejected by the mainstream.
Choi graduated from York University’s theatre program, and spent the early 2000s with the Asian-focused fu-GEN Theatre, followed by a stint at Stratford before he landed at Soulpepper. Jain has a globe-trotting resumé and a Dora for acting in another play he co-wrote, Spent. He shopped around Brimful after successfully selling 2,400 tickets at the Regent Park Theatre for a two-play set starring the Indian celebrity Naseeruddin Shah. Neither he nor Choi could convince a T.O. theatre company to stage their plays.
Both men went independent—Choi took Kim’s Convenience through the Fringe and the Best of the Fringe, while Jain and his mom workshopped Brimful at various festivals. Kim’s has sold out every single show in its existence, and will begin its second run at Soulpepper soon. Last fall, Brimful regularly packed the Tarragon’s smaller space; meanwhile, the show on the larger mainstage at the time held barely half a house most nights.
Staging something independently requires guts and money, as well as tons of energy and time. “I never got involved in the administration at fu-GEN. I figured I would help the cause by being a better actor,” says Choi. The new run of pomme is french for apple at the Young Centre is the first time that co-creators Paul and Watson have been able to focus on just acting and directing. Last winter, the duo spent 14-hour days writing and practising, and handled stage-managing and box-office duties. After all that, it was finally time to pull on pink circle scarves to play talking vaginas onstage.
I ask Choi if I’m a jerk for not paying better attention to our many long-toiling, culturally specific theatres. “You’re just being a consumer—if I see a crappy poster, I think, ‘Aw, I’m not going to see that,’” he says. Choi, who attends “every Asian play” and the full season at the black-focused Obsidian Theatre, adds, “It’s part and parcel of being at a bigger company that there’s more money and more people for the marketing thing.”
The success of these productions is concrete proof that the “classic” theatre audience is eager to see plays about Toronto circa right now, too. Grey-haired WASPs are filling venues, wanting to grasp the meaning of Mrs. Kim’s Korean murmurings, laugh at Asha Jain’s accented jokes, and absorb the dutty, rapid patois in pomme. “Audiences are smart; people can keep up,” says Watson. “Even in Rochester or Hamilton, white people will come up to us to say, ‘I didn’t understand all of it, but I loved it.’”
Both Kim’s and Brimful will be touring across Canada this year—Choi says he’s less nervous after a trial run in London, Ont. last month, when his show filled an 850-seat theatre and got a standing ovation. If a good play does tell a universal story, Toronto is proving that relevance moves in every direction, and it sells tickets to a lot of people, including me.
pomme is french for apple runs from Feb. 28 to March 4. Kim’s Convenience runs from May 23 to June 19. Both at the Young Centre, 50 Tank House Ln., 416-866-8666, youngcentre.ca. A Brimful of Asha runs April 10–28 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave., 416-531-1827, tarragontheatre.com.