Nigel Downer: More than a Bit Playa
The word "relatability" comes up often in conversation with comedian Nigel Downer.
Downer, along with show creator and fellow executive producer Kris Siddiqi, stars in CBC Gem's digital original comedy series Bit Playas, which follows two nerdy Toronto-based best friends and underemployed actors Ahmed (Siddiqi) and Leon (Downer) navigate racism, stereotypes and microaggressions in a myriad of everyday situations that balances humour with a much deeper message, inspired by situations experienced in their own lives.
In discussing how that real-life material was honed, Downer thinks that "It's based on just the idea of which [situations] are the most common."
"Which are the ones that affected us the most? Which ones are the ones we want to let the audience know, 'Hey these microaggressions, this soft racism happens'? It happens on a daily basis."
"Those are the ones that we deal with the most or the most often. So that's how we selected. And also which ones are funny? Which are the ones that we thought were hilarious that that actually happened?"
For example, in the show's first episode, Leon and Ahmed head to an acting audition to appear in a movie as Thug #4. The unexpected pathos Leon brings to such a clearly stereotypical role in the audition is summarily dismissed in favour of delivering something "real."
While the scene itself is played to the comic hilt, it doesn't take much of a leap to understand how much of the episode is rooted in direct sobering personal experience.
"All of it," says Downer in affirmation.
"Obviously the scenarios are heightened and exaggerated, but for the most part it's all based off truth. So Kris going in and it's assumed he's going to play a taxi driver or me being asked to be more 'real'. That's real. That's happened before."
In another episode, each character imagines what life would be like if they were granted the privilege of a straight white man in surreal over-the-top dream sequences.
At one point, Downer's Leon character engages in a cognitively dissonant song-and-dance number with a plethora of bat-wielding police who playfully pretend to beat him before an aggressive cop points a gun at Leon underlining the limits of his privilege even in an imagined utopia.
It's a traumatic scenario for any black male to consider and the intentionally disturbing scene that was, understandably, emotionally complex for Downer to play, despite its comic intentions.
"That sequence was actually very intense for me," says the Cambridge, Ont. native.
"I really had to use my acting chops and dig deep 'cause [of] having the cops around me. I personally have not been exposed to anything as intense as a cop raising his gun at me but I have been exposed to racism by the police. So that was intense. As well as [the scene] is good-looking because it's gorgeous it's really blown out and exaggerated it was intense and it was very hard to deal with. It's something that we wanted to put in the face of our audience all wrapped up into this little bite-sized web series to see how they react to something as real as that."
Interwoven into the commentary on racism, cultural appropriation, passing and code switching, the show reveals itself to be mainly about the friendships of two men and how they negotiate the differences in their personality.
Siddiqi's madcap Ahmed character is an extremely laid-back foil to Downer's conservative Leon, a difference Downer notes is manifested in the style of dress of both characters.
Downer and Siddiqi's characters resemble their real-life personalities which first bonded while the two worked at comic revue Second City in Toronto when Downer was Siddiqi's understudy.
"We found that we had a common love for video games soundtracks," says Downer.
"That was actually what really brought us together and really made our nerd sections tingle if you will."
Consequently, the duo don't shy away from incorporating insider knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, comic book references with a healthy side of weed culture into Bit Playas, helping the viewers to see them as fully formed characters.
"Let's also talk about these guys and what these guys are about and what they love and what they're passionate about because [I] think digging deeper into the characters will give you more insight into why they make the choices they make," says Downer.
Downer attributes this comic writing approach to his experience working at Second City — where he will be returning to the Mainstage on February 25 as part of their 84th revue — as instrumental in this character development.
It's something he's also been willing to pass on to emerging comics working with the Bob Curry Fellowship at Second City, named after the first African American comic to join Second City's resident company.
Downer, who himself got his start in comedy after being laid off from his graphic designer job and being encouraged to do stand-up by comic Darrin Rose, is cognizant of the need for programs that help comics from marginalized backgrounds breakthrough.
"The Bob Curry Fellowship comes out of Chicago and that is to give a platform for actors in diversity and inclusion so they can perform on our stage here and perform their on material as well as archived material as well," says Downer, who also served as the Toronto director of the Fellowship a few years ago and still helps out as a consultant.
"It gives them a platform, it gives them a place to play, and it gives them exposure too. Second City is a very big name. It's a juggernaut in the States and it's very well known so when you have that 'Performed in a Bob Curry showcase at Second City.' It raises some eyebrows."
Downer is not done raising eyebrows himself and has an ethos that drives his work whether it's on stage or screen that he feels is part of a larger movement.
"I think that given the chance we can play just as much as anyone else we're super super fortunate and super happy CBC gave Kris and [me] the opportunity to create Bit Playas and flesh it out and make it that fun web series that it is but it still has a message, it still has heart."