Black Boys With Amazing GraceTuesday, January 16, 2018
|Taken before performance|
Rosemary and I went to the Cultch to see the opening night play Black Boys presented by the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and Zee Zee Theatre. It was directed by Jonathan Seinen.
We sat down and Rosemary read me the introduction in the program:
A raw, intimate, and timely exploration of queer male Blackness. Three individuals seek a deeper understanding of themselves, of each other, and of how they encounter the world, subverting the ways in which gender, sexuality, and race are performed.
We looked at each other and since we are in our 70s (and human products coming from a world of whiteness, and heterosexuality of the past 20th century) we became uneasy. Were we at the right place? Would we understand and even enjoy the play?
We should not have been uneasy at all!
The play, a play with what seemed to be lots of autobiographical content and which was created by one of the three performers, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, had tight dialogue, mostly free of any clichés. Not only that I found Black Boys elegant and even classy!
The three black men were all different from each other. Jackman-Torkoff (a tall and wiry young man) was the most active and talkative. Thomas Olajide played a less scary (almost straight) young man. He was a marvellous dancer. Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy, Ghanian-born, had that beautiful accent, diction and lovely voice that many (am I generalizing here?) immigrants from Africa have.
In many ways M’Carthy was my favourite in that he taught me how difficult it is to fit in Canada if you are not only a black man, but a black man from Africa. While that alienation only resembles mine in a small way, which is that I am a Latin American white man in a country of diminishing Anglo Saxons, I could understand his unease.
As I watched I thought of my past relationship with black men. I believe this is important as I experienced this from the moment I was 7 or 8. In Buenos Aires my mother had a live-in housekeeper Celia whose husband Abelardo lived with us. They were both black. And in that mostly white city (with darker-skinned Argentine aboriginals) black people were as rare as turbaned Sikhs.
I might have felt exactly as the three black men in the play when Abelardo and Celia took me to an evening “candombe” which featured a sea of black people in an African/Brazilian religious gathering. I remember the chanting and the many fires. But most of all, since I was extremely blonde, I remember being stared at as Abelardo and Celia showed me off to their friends.
The second black man in my life happened in my four year Catholic boarding school, St. Edward’s in Austin, Texas. In the whole school we had one black day student called Richard Mosby. Since we saw him every day, after four years he was definitely part of our scenery. But of course, I never asked him what it felt to be the only black man in school.
In my first and last semester at St. Edward’s University one of my classmates was from Ghana and his name was Gabriel Burning Spear. We played a game where we would ask him to wear his Roman-like toga. We would then go to Austin restaurants. They invariably stopped us at the door. We would explain that Burning Spear’s father was a delegate of the United Nations. And invariably they would seat us.
My fourth black person was a woman. I was introduced to her by a friend at Mexico City College in Mexico City in the early 60s. She was called Benjamin (“call me Benji”) and she informed me that she had recently converted to the Jewish faith. She was from Chicago. She became one of my first girlfriends. I can point out here that walking hand in hand in Mexico City with a black woman meant we were stared at wherever we went. When I told my mother, who was teaching at an Alcoa American School in Veracruz that I was going to bring Benji with me she told me not to as it would put her in a difficult position with the company. I am ashamed to admit that I did not rock the boat.
|Alex Waterhouse-Hayward, Benji Jackson, Robert Hijar|
In the late 70s, soon after my wife Rosemary and two Mexican-born daughters moved to Vancouver in 1975 I was a habitué of the clothing-optional Wreck Beach. One of my friends was Black Jim. This is what we all called him. None of us ever gave out our surnames. In those late 70s I was working for a weekly gay publication called Bi-Line. I photographed many handsome young black men (with nothing much on). But Jim, truly had a fantastic body. It was a body that this very straight Latin American could not ignore. I took a series of photographs of him of which this one I can safely place here.
I have often thought that Vancouver has a poor memory for its past. It was in the late 80s that I photographed a young boxing star called Michael Olajide who was called The Silk. My photograph of him made the cover of Vancouver Magazine.
|Michael Olajide & father|
When I read that one of the performers, Thomas Olajide had the same surname I had to ask. This I did after the performance. Michael Olajide is his uncle (he has a gym in New York City) and Thomas instantly introduced me to Olive who was there and happens to be Michael Olajide’s mother. I kept pressing my memory and sure enough not some four years ago I photographed a musical group whose bassist was David Olajide!
|The Blood Alley Quartet |
From left, Randy Bowman (drums), top left Dave Olajide (bass),
centre, Gus Vassos (vocals, guitar)
right, Anthony Walker (vocals, guitar)
I cannot finish this review of Black Boys without mentioning a few things. One was that I enjoyed watching how my Rosemary smiled through the whole performance.
The three did sing, including a rousing and very loud rendition of Amazing Grace by Jackman- Torkoff. But the real standout for me was the choreography of Virgilia Griffith and in particular the amazing moves of Thomas Olajide. My guess is that he could teach his boxing uncle a few dancing tricks. The sparse set by Rachel Forbes and the lighting design by Jareth Li, enhanced without overpowering the actors.
And lastly in this most careful 21st century as a man I think I can get away with pointing out how I revelled and enjoyed the three bodies that were there on the floor. In particular there must be some inner recess of my mind that can appreciate a beautifully tight (as my grandmother used to say) “Donde la espalda pierde su nombre.”
Kudos to the Cultch for helping Rosemary and this all-white man appreciate some of the finer things that life can offer.
This old blog of mine about the wonders of the Cultch through the years points out that beginning with 2001's Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (a very early Electric Theatre Company production) the idea of seeing full frontal male nudity with corresponding dangling parts has been an almost yearly institution!