Arts

How three performers came together to explore black queer identity — on their own terms

Powerful new play Black Boys gives a much-needed voice to underrepresented identities through a variety of monologues, music, dance and audience interaction.

'The time is now to seize that opportunity'

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Thomas Olajide and Tawiah Ben M'Carthy on stage. (Jeremy Mimnagh)

Four years and countless conversations ago, three performers — Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben M'Carthy and Thomas Olajide — began coming together to conceive Black Boys. Little did they know it would end up being one of the most talked about plays of 2016.

In the two weeks since Black Boys opened at Toronto's Buddies in Bad TimesThe Toronto Star has praised its "unique point of view and the guts to make it heard," and CBC Arts' own Amanda Parris, speaking on q earlier this week, said, "I think this is probably the most important theatre production I've seen all year. It had me on the edge of my seat. I was completely speechless after it was done but haven't stopped talking about since."

Parris admits that describing what Black Boys is precisely about is a very difficult task. The "play" — a questionable designation in itself — is non-linear and disjointed, with Jackman-Torkoff, M'Carthy and Olajide exploring the intersection of black and queer identities through a variety of monologues, music, dance and audience interaction. What results is powerful, bold and more timely than many expected (it opened 10 days after the U.S. election). It's also an extraordinary testament to artists taking matters in their own hands.

Thomas Olajide. (Jeremy Mimnagh)

Jackman-Torkoff, M'Carthy and Olajide — all members of the Saga Collectif — each started having their own conversations about waiting to create a piece together back in 2012. A year later, they were in residency at Buddies and they've been working on it ever since. 

"We all wanted to tell a new story, and we wanted to tell it on our own terms, outside of whatever artistic theatre circles we'd been in — kind of see it in our own perspective," Jackman-Torkoff recalls. "It just started with lots of talking about what's going on and lots of improving and generating."

The journey they ultimately ended up taking to bring Black Boys to the stage offers an imperative message to young artists who find themselves on the margins.

If they want to see themselves reflected on stage, the time is now to take hold of that and seize that opportunity to be at the centre of the administrative process of creating a show.- Tawiah Ben M'Carthy's advice to artists who find themselves on the margins of the creative process

"The impetus can come come from them," M'Carthy says. "If they want to see themselves reflected on stage, the time is now to take hold of that and seize that opportunity to be at the centre of the administrative process of creating a show."

​Olajide says he felt like he came into Black Boys in reaction to what he'd experienced so far in his professional career as an actor.

"There was this effort or push to be diverse but the diversity only really happened in the later stages of the process, so basically casting," he says. "And casting is usually like, the last five minutes of a production. So who decided on the production, what it would look like, the text and everything else...usually were not people of colour. So I was hungry to be part of a creative process right at the beginning of it."

Tawiah Ben M'Carthy, Thomas Olajide and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff. (Jeremy Mimnagh)

What the three men have collectively achieved by challenging the norms of their own creative industry should prove an inspiration to anyone struggling to have their artistic voices heard.

"[It's about] not needing the validation to take those steps by anyone you perceive to be more powerful or experienced," Jackman-Torkoff says of what he learned through this process. "Your perspective might know a lot more about the work you want to create and how you're going to create it."

Olajide added that artists don't need a big institution to make their best work. "You don't have to take that route to be a great artist," he says. "You can actually figure that out on your own, or — happily — with the help of people who are on your level."

Essentially, the first step is taking action — which is always the most difficult part.

"When you push the ball down the hill, it will roll," M'Carthy says. "It might not end up where you want it to end up, but it will roll. So the first action is pushing the ball. And when you do it, there's a chain reaction. It puts something in motion so it's not just thinking about it but actively pursuing what it is you want to do as an artist. I think so often when we think ideas are too big or too impossible, we get scared. We start waiting for the right time — but the right time never comes."

While it may have taken four years for the ball to roll into the spotlight for Jackman-Torkoff, M'Carthy and Olajide, it has indeed gotten there. And now is very much the right time for you to see why.

Stephen Jackman Torkoff, Tawiah Ben M'Carthy, Thomas Olajide. Black Boys. To Dec. 11 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. buddiesinbadtimes.com

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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