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vancouverplays review


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— Photo by  Andrée Lanthier 

by Omari Newton
urban ink productions and Black Theatre Workshop
Roundhouse Performance Centre
May 22-31
$12-$25 at

This is Jerry's review of the production from 2014.

One of the anthems of my generation was Neil Young’s song “Ohio,” an angry, eloquent response to the killing of four student anti-war protesters by US national guardsmen on the Kent State University campus in 1970. Young’s keening voice took the lead with harmonies by Crosby, Stills & Nash, their guitars sounding like a march towards Armageddon: “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground/How can you run when you know?”

Omari Newton’s curiously titled play, Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of, also presents a musical response to the shocking killing of an unarmed young person by police, but in this generation’s idiom, hip hop. Newton and Young ask similar questions. How do you make sense of such injustice, such tragedy? How do you stand your ground and translate anger into meaningful action?

But Newton has a much broader agenda. Sal Capone examines why disaffected young people are so attracted to hip hop, why mainstream culture and authority are so hostile to it, what race, ethnicity and sexual marginalization mean in Canada as opposed to the United States, and more.

Though overly ambitious and in need of some structural and theatrical fixes, the play is intelligent and often exciting. Directed by Diane Roberts for Vancouver’s urban ink productions and Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop, it features killer music and a couple of dynamite performances.

Newton wrote Sal Capone in response to the 2008 shooting death of teen Fredy Villanueva by Montreal police. Sal Capone is the name of the aspiring hip hop group in the play and Sal is also the stage name of its lead singer, Fredy Salazar Jr. (Tristan D. Lalla). But Fredy isn’t the victim this time; it’s Sal Capone’s DJ, Sam I Am, who gets shot nine times by a cop at the start of the play, just as the group is about to launch its first record.

Sal (a young black man), Filipina rapper Jey (Kim Villagante), and the group’s manager, white b-boxer Chase (Jordan Waunch), all react to the event differently. So does Fredy/Sal’s smart little sister Naomi (the excellent Letitia Brookes).

Their reactions are framed and counterpointed by the play’s narrator, Shaneyney (Billy Merasty), a gay aboriginal transvestite hooker, who starts the show in the lobby, leading us into the theatre with a series of taunts and challenges. We’re tourists, he tells us. We’ll think that what we’re seeing takes place in another country, but we’ll soon find out that we share common borders.

Yes, the play presses a whole lot of Canadian cultural buttons but most of the issues will resonate with Vancouver audiences. Police shootings of young black men have been a major controversy in Montreal, where the play was first performed. Less so here–a line about being guilty of WWB (Walking While Black) hardly got a laugh from the opening night audience in the Roundhouse. A reference to living in White Rock suggests that the otherwise unspecified Canadian city in this production is Vancouver, so the aboriginal narrator makes good sense. And of course we’re hardly immune to gay-bashing or suspicious police killings in our city.

People may disagree about the play’s politics and its thematic positions, and complain about the amount of stage time the characters spend arguing about hip hop art-versus-commerce. But there should be few arguments about the quality of the music or performances.

Lalla and Villagante are fantastic rappers–Vancouverite Villagante, who has never acted before, makes a remarkable theatrical debut–and the musical numbers are astonishingly good. I wanted more of them, and just wish the terrible acoustics of the Roundhouse didn’t make the lyrics almost impossible to hear. Troy Slocum’s sound design is otherwise very fine, and Candelario Andrade’s projections have a dynamic musical rhythm of their own.

Besides the music, the conflicts among the young people about what race means to them stand out for me. Chase, who objects to being called white (“I’m Sicilian!”), complains that Sal is “playing the race card.” Sal responds that he wishes he had a white card in his pack that he could play. Jey has adopted the angry, aggressive persona of a black male gangsta rapper and has to continually justify herself when Sal and Chase point out that she’s an Asian girl.

Naomi, ostensibly the voice of reason in the play, accuses her brother of “talking like an extra in The Wire,” and keeps reminding the others that they live in Canada where most police are nice guys, everyone loves David Suzuki, and race really doesn’t matter that much.

The Lamentable Tragedy of the title will eventually encompass not just the wasteful deaths of young men of colour but the death of illusions like Naomi’s as well.

A special feature of the May 25 and 31 matinees will be youth hip hop performances (BAMN! Youth Speak Truth to Power!) at 1 pm before each show.

Jerry Wasserman


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