Coming of age tale hits full stride with a revival
Obaaberima ( out of four) Written by Tawiah Ben M’Carthy. Directed by Evalyn Parry. Until Dec. 9 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com or 416-975-8555
After several weeks of controversy, Buddies in Bad Times is back to the business of its 40th anniversary season with a welcome revival of this 2012 hit, which launched the career of its transfixing performer/author, Tawiah Ben M’Carthy.
He’s working within a familiar model — the coming-of-age, confessional solo show — but reinterpreting it in ways that combine innovation with recognizable elements of the genre. M’Carthy says it is not autobiographical, but calls on elements of his experience.
Its central character is Agyeman, a young Ghanaian man who struggles with his parents’ high expectations — mom wants him to be a pastor, dad a lawyer — and with the complexities of his gendered and sexual identity.
We meet him on the last night of his time in a Canadian prison, aged about 30 ( just what landed him in prison is a slow-burning question that is eventually resolved). The orange jumpsuit is familiar, but the way he wears it is not: pant legs rolled up, one arm out of a sleeve exposing a lot of skin.
Dressed this way, he’s expressing the female side of his identity, who is named Sibongile; she serves as narrator and controls the show’s action. In this guise, M’Carthy’s performance is feminized: he plays the higher areas of his vocal register and movies gracefully and sensuously. Sibongile tells how, growing up in Ghana, Agyeman was mocked for being an “Obaaberima” — a girlie boy; he secretly put on his mother’s dresses and high heels while publicly trying to walk the walk of compulsory heterosexuality.
As the story develops, more characters appear: the dressmaker Opayin, who shelters Agyeman and helps Sibongile to emerge; the wealthy neighbour boy Nana Osei, Agyeman’s best friend with benefits.
While there is a bit of dragginess and some potential for confusion at this early point in the show, Evalyn Parry’s direction and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting establish guiding conventions. Sibongile’s gestures prompt rectangular areas of light to open up on the stage floor, which become associated with a location (Opayin’s shop, Agyeman’s mother’s bedroom). Other than this, there’s very little physical production (Camellia Koo’s back wall of a set establishes the prison setting).
The instrumentalist Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison sits on a level above the action, providing constant underscoring on African instruments, in intimate relationship to M’Carthy’s performance.
The show hits its full stride when Agyeman moves to Toronto for university and again starts living multiple lives: courting the devout Ghanaian woman Philipa while further exploring same-sex intimacy on the down low.
On the one hand, it’s entertaining to see M’Carthy dancing as fast as he can between different personas and situations, but it’s also upsetting. Without hitting this directly on the head, the show is making big points about how those who live in repressive environments (homosexuality remains criminal in Ghana) can internalize that repression.
Imprisonment here deftly serves both as a literal situation and as metaphor for what Agye- man’s been doing for most of his life: “Putting parts of me in orange.”
It’s M’Carthy’s brilliant capacities for physical, vocal and psychological transformation that are at the heart of the production and its meanings — not just the different gendered parts of Agyeman’s identity, but memories all the other characters live within him.
The strong arc of the show is his channelling these presences, processing them, and trying to come out the other end whole and strong, embracing both his Oberima (male) and Obaa (female) sides.
Since this show’s initial run — it won a best production Dora Award in 2013 and toured nationally — McCarthy co-created the much-admired show Black Boys at Buddies in 2016 and served as assistant director at the Shaw Festival this season.
This revival underlines Buddies’ success over its four-decade history in identifying and nurturing exciting new voices.