Box 4901 might be the gayest play ever produced in Canada, and it's a profound must-see
The play responds to letters writer Brian Francis received in 1992 after placing a personals ad
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
"This might be the gayest show that's ever been produced in Canada," Rob Kempson says of the new play Box 4901, which he directed and co-created. "Because every single person on the team is queer, and there's 14 people in the show. So we're looking at a total team of 25 people, all of whom are queer."
Whether or not that all adds up to Box 4901 being our country's gayest stage production is unclear — but what certainly is clear is that it's a unique and profound new addition to Canada's queer theatre canon that asks its audience ro reflect on how their connections to themselves has evolved. Currently on stage at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times (and then hopefully heading all over), Box 4901 unites seasoned theatre maker Kempson, Governor General's Literary Award-nominated novelist Brian Francis (making his stage debut) and 13 of Toronto's finest queer actors (including Keith Cole, Indrit Kasapi, Eric Morin and Samson Bonkeabantu Brown). Together, they respond to letters Francis received from a 1992 personals ad he placed when he was just starting to come to terms with his sexuality.
"I wouldn't call myself a hoarder, but I keep weird things from my past," Francis explains. "I keep report cards, buttons from childhood...I discovered the other day I kept a lot of my elementary school Valentine's Day cards, which are the best because they are those old school ones and they're all kind of corny."
One of the other things he kept? A box of letters from a personals ad he placed he was 21 years old and living in southwestern Ontario.
"I never really knew why I kept these letters," he says. "They were not letters that I ever responded to. So it's kind of weird, like, 'Why are you hanging on to the letters you didn't respond to?' I think at the time the only reason why I hung on to them was because they kind of represented a really interesting chapter from my life when I was starting to come out. These were sort of artifacts of me kind of coming out into the world — looking for love and finally taking off all the crap that had been loaded on my shoulders for so long and I was finally now ready to meet other gay men."
Francis had a thought: what if he responded to them now, 28 years after the fact?
"It was kind of an interesting exercise to try to remember who I was at 21 but also trying to find an entry point in these letters for me to reflect on a number of things that I'm dealing with: age, loneliness, self-acceptance — things that I'm dealing with as I hurtle toward middle age, if I'm not already there. I'm still working through a lot of stuff and that never goes away. Whether you're 21 or you're 49, the circumstances around your life may be similar or different, but you still are always fundamentally grappling who you are and how you connect to yourself."
That exercise was the genesis of Box 4901, though at first Francis never imagined it would evolve into something that took place on a stage.
"I thought, 'I don't know what I have here,'" he says. "'I have some pages...is it a podcast? Is it a website?' I knew wasn't going to be a book as it was way too short. So I gave it to Rob [Kempson] who was working on an adaptation of my second book. And he was like, 'I totally see this as a production onstage.'"
For Kempson, part of that vision was seeing the potential of those 13 letters to be used to incorporate other queer actors.
"These 13 letters could be embodied by 13 queer folks of various gender identities and ethnic backgrounds and ages and experiences and sexual identities within the community," Kempson recalls thinking. "And though you get these 13 letters that, in 1992 in southwestern Ontario, were all from white guys, most of whom were in their 20s...through seeing them embodied in the voices of a contemporary queer community, you see how the community has changed and expanded and is so much more inclusive than it ever was. And so what I love about the piece, and what is so exciting for me, is that I get to work with an all queer team; we get to tell an all queer story; we get to sort of be our queerest selves — but also we get to talk more broadly about the history of our community, and who we were, and who we are, and what is different about that."
The show marks a major shift for Francis, known primarily for writing award-winning fiction like 2004's Fruit (a finalist for Canada Reads), 2011's Natural Order (shortlisted for a 2012 CBC Bookie Award) and 2019's Break in Case of Emergency (a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Awards).
"This was not anything that I would have ever imagined for myself at all," Francis says. "But the next thing I know, I find myself on a stage at a podium talking about myself in a way that's a little bit more vulnerable than I've done before. With fiction, you kind of hide behind it. This is a lot more real. This is really who I am. So it's been it's been a bit of a new experience for me, to say the last. I've enjoyed it, but it's also been a bit scary."
Whether you're 21 or you're 49, the circumstances around your life may be similar or different, but you still are always fundamentally grappling with who you are and how you connect to yourself.- Brian Francis
He hopes his efforts help audiences take a look at the value of their own lives and the connections they make to who they used to be.
"I think as you get older, you move away from your past and you move away from your youth," Francis says. "And you give up a lot when you give up your youth. You give up certain charms that you maybe once had. And so that gets replaced by hopefully a bit of wisdom — a little bit of perspective to say that, 'I've lived through it.' What I'm hoping is that people kind of see the performance as a way potentially for them to connect with who they are, but also to really embrace that moment of where they're currently at in their lives. That it's never going to be perfect — it's never going to be, 'I feel 100 percent satisfied with who I am' — but to know where you've come from in terms of your journey and also to take inventory of your own life."
And this doesn't just apply to queer folks.
"We talk a lot about how the show is about connection, and I think that though it is perhaps the gayest show ever produced in Canada, it is also incredibly accessible to everyone," Kempson adds. "And I love that. I love when work that is queer and subversive in some way, or asks questions that maybe aren't always asked, also has the ability to connect with a more general audience."
All audiences are welcome to connect to Box 4901 as it continues its run at Buddies through March 8th, and you can be on the lookout for future performances here.