Black-theatre company’s big night demonstrates the drawing power of culturally focussed productions in Toronto.
In a year that hit new artistic highs and industry lows, last night’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards at the Bluma Appel Theatre could be taken as a signal of where Toronto theatre is, or should be, headed. Supporting the trend towards more culturally specific theatre, one of Canada’s most prominent black theatre companies, Obsidian Theatre, was far and away the big winner of the night.
The company grabbed eight awards split between two different co-productions. Suzan Lori-Parks’ Topdog Underdog, a double-hander between two African-American brothers co-produced with the Shaw Festival, took the top honours in the General Theatre category—Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction for Philip Akin (also Obsidian’s artistic director), and Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Principle Role for Nigel Shawn Williams.
In the Musical Theatre division, Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change—about a black maid caught between families and changing civil rights in 1963 Southern America—dominated. Co-produced by Acting Up Stage Company, it won Outstanding Production of a Musical, while Arlene Duncan won for her role as the titular Caroline, and Sterling Jarvis won the male performance award for his turn as a clothes dryer and a bus (no, really).
The third production that received its fair share of accolades was Pamela Mala Sinha’s Crash, an intensely personal one-woman show directed by Alan Dilworth at Theatre Passe-Muraille. Though it primarily revolves around the emotional aftermath of rape, Sinha’s script also includes elements of her family, Indian heritage, and the legend of “The Weeping Woman.” It won Doras for lighting and sound design, Sinha’s performance in a lead role, and—the biggest surprise of the night—Outstanding New Play. (The Korean immigrant family saga Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi was the favourite to grab that particular award.) On the brink of another consecutive sold-out run in its current remount at Soulpepper, it’s perhaps the best example demonstrating the power of culturally focussed theatre to draw new audiences.
Ravi Jain—most recently known as the creator of the hit A Brimful of Asha, in which he discusses Indian culture and arranged marriages with his own mother—also received special recognition with the Pauline McGibbon Award for his work in Ontario theatre. A Brimful of Asha will be remounted at Tarragon Theatre next season.
At last year’s Doras, hands were wringing over the SummerWorks Festival’s loss of government funding. But that was only the beginning of the rollercoaster year that would be Toronto theatre—since then, there’ve been stories of alleged censorship, indefinite hiatuses, and now the unceremonious firing of Factory Theatre’s Ken Gass. But while host Thom Allison lamented all these things in a kitschy opening song and dance, overall the tone was celebratory and joyous (literally, there were several shouts of “Joy! Joy!”) over the work that the industry created throughout the trials of the past year.
If the Doras really do show where we’re headed, then we’re on the right track.