Moving the Centre
Two Plays: Small Axe & Freedom Singer
Khari Wendell McClelland
Moving the Centre explores the work of two theatre-makers (and a theatre company) who simultaneously dare, fumble, and persist in bringing audiences into a space where complicity, authority, and authentic listening are met anew. The two plays it includes lean into the problems and possibilities of verbatim theatre to engage the questions of justice and identity and the history all around us. Born of Toronto’s socially engaged theatre company Project: Humanity, these plays by two very different artists rely on the power of recorded “real-life” encounters to shape and reshape their own defining narratives.
Small Axe charts the quest of a queer white playwright, Andrew Kushnir, who – because of an unsettling moment with a friend – feels a pull towards investigating homophobia in Jamaica. What starts as an artist researching an injustice in a racialized community with which he feels some kinship evolves into a startling excavation of self and the stories we claim of others. To whom does an injustice “belong”? Through a constellation of exchanges – with activists, refugees, priests and ministers, journalists, fellow artists, Pride Week revellers, and many Black queer people, Small Axe invites us to sit with our differences in order to discover how intricately connected we are.
Freedom Singer is a musical/verbatim theatre hybrid, constructed from hard-won historic material and family lore, documenting playwright Khari Wendell McClelland’s search for his ancestral grandmother Kizzy and the songs she may have sung during her escape through the Underground Railroad. With an opening essay by Kushnir and a concluding essay by McClelland, the book’s literal centre (between the plays) is a verbatim dialogue where the two discuss the white gaze vs. Black “looking back,” theatre-as-a-practice, and how centring caring and equitable relationships is what can make this kind of challenging theatre more ethical, more viable, and more truthful.