“Dense” is a word you might use to describe the writing in Other Side of the Game, a play by Amanda Parris, now running at Daniels Spectrum. You can imagine director Nigel Shawn Williams mounting this production by parsing sections of the dialogue between alternating pairs and trios of characters played by five actors in a show that delves into black activism in Toronto.
Parris’s premise is that the personal and the political are inseparable and that action in the public realm inevitably impacts one’s private struggles and vice versa.
Lights come up on Virgilia Griffith, Shakura Dickson, Ryan Rosery, Peter Bailey and Ordena Stephens-Thompson seated silently in straight-backed chairs. Their choreographed shouts of anger and frustration, sighs, yawns, squirming and rising turns out to be set in a prison waiting room, where women waiting to visit prisoners are confounded by jail protocols. One screams that she hasn’t heard her number announced. The overhead voice of a prison guard says, “That’s your problem; you should have listened.”
The damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t jail routines make a solid metaphor for what the characters in Other Side of the Game are caught in: on both the domestic and the political front, a no-win situation.
Akilah (Virgilia Griffith) is a tireless sistah, a single mum and organizer who’s willing to give her all for the cause, with love. and has a penchant for citing pithy, inspirational quotes from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. In the office of an organization mounting a protest against police brutality, her opposite number is an earnest, absolutist radical, Khalil (Ryan Rosery), more likely to quote Malcolm X. Enter Beverley (Shakura Dickson), a student from the black community in Halifax whose innocent desire to join the movement is opposed by Brother Khalil. Akilah wants to give Beverley a chance.
With a quick scene change we see that Dickson is now playing Shevon, a slang-speaking dish who is chatting with her friend Nicole, played by Griffith ̶ with no visible or audible change in appearance. Nicole is also a single mother and works shifts as a cashier at Shoppers Drug Mart. She has a penchant for citing pithy, inspirational quotes from Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. Soon Rosery shows up again, as Nicole’s boyfriend Devonte, a man with a criminal past who has been away for two years.
The time frame here is about a week, during which Akilah, Khalil and Beverley work on the big demonstration while Nicole and Shevon engage in abusive relationships with their boyfriends.
Peter Bailey is marvellous as an old Caribbean guy who bears memories and methods from the civil rights movement in the U.S. He disputes the attitude of the younger generation, especially when it comes to violence and crime. Later Bailey shines as Shevon’s gangsta boyfriend.
Ordena Stephens-Thompson does double duty as an authoritarian female cop and the guidance counsellor who advises Devonte against trying to complete a diploma that would get him into university.
(“This transition program is for people who’ve demonstrated potential . . .”)
Parris’ makes a compelling drama with Other Side of the Game while covering real issues in Toronto’s African-Canadian community. From drug trafficking and prison horrors to carding and child poverty, she creates a real story to carry important messages.
Joanna Yu’s simple set of graffiti-ed walls and a garbage-littered chain-link fence make staging–moving around some concrete armchairs–simple. And sound designer Verne Good bridges rapidly changing scenes with well chosen musical transitions.
Even at the fast pace of the play, it feels long and is confusing. The lengthy opener with the miming and the chairs doesn’t lend anything to the piece. Add to the longueurs an opening-night fire alarm at the Daniels Spectrum complex that caused us all to evacuate the theatre for more than 20 minutes.
Such accomplished actors as this cast could surely have been directed to inflect their different characters so we always know who’s who. As it is, only Shevon and Beverley are easily differentiated.
Still, this is an energetic and inspiring performance from Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre.
Other Side of the Game
Written by Amanda Parris
Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
Produced by Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre,
At the Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto until November 5
Photo of Virgilia Griffith and Shakura Dickson by Dahlia Katz