Telling tales: Smart and funny Royal MTC show asks who has the right to relate a story
Kat Sandler’s Bang Bang uses witty dialogue, complex character to explore questions of appropriation
A black teenager is shot during a traffic stop by a cop — who happens to be a black woman.
Whose story is that, and who has the right to tell it?
Those are the questions at the heart of prolific Toronto playwright Kat Sandler's Bang Bang, the 2018 play that opens the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Warehouse season — and which marks the directorial debut of Kelly Thornton, RMTC's new artistic director.
It's an impressive debut, too — thanks to a smart and funny script, some outstanding performances and a relentlessly paced production.
Though it often plays like a comedy, the subject matter Sandler's play revolves around is literally deadly serious.
Lila (Beverly Ndukwu), a young police officer, has shot a teenager. That becomes the "jumping off" point for a hit play by Tim (Tom Keenan), a playwright.
But he's written the story without her consent, and finally decides to visit Lila and her mother, Karen (Warona Setshwaelo), when his play is picked up to become a movie.
Starring in the film version is former Disney star turned wanna-be serious actor Jackie Savage (Sébastien Heins), who decides he too needs to pay a visit to do some character research.
In a scenario that feels perhaps a bit unlikely (and among the script's few flaws are some points that stretch credulity a bit), the four characters — along with Jackie's unsophisticated but street-smart bodyguard, Tony (Alex Poch-Goldin), end up in the living room of Lila and Karen's home.
There, the often heated discussion involves everything from Tim's play to police violence to systemic racism.
At the heart of it all, though, is the question of appropriation. In spite of his insistence that he isn't telling her story, per se, does Tim — a white writer — have the right to use details from the life of Lila — a black woman — as a "jumping off" point? Is her story his to tell?
Those questions spill out through Sandler's carefully crafted, and wonderfully funny, dialogue. She has a keen ear for the way people speak, and her characters sound like real people.
They feel like real people too — all five characters are believably drawn and multi-faceted. They are all by turns admirable and flawed, and Sandler skilfully swings the audience's sympathies from one to the other as the play's action unfolds.
That all requires strong performances, and Thornton's cast delivers. They have fantastic comic timing, in particular Poch-Goldin, who delivers plenty of tension-cutting comic relief as the rough-around-the-edges Tony — a character who often proves himself to actually be the smartest person in the room.
Heins oozes Hollywood charm in his entrance as Jackie, and draws big laughs with his portrayal of the preening star — but also conveys the sense that Jackie is not as vacuous as we might initially think.
Setshwaelo is delightfully arch as Karen, who doesn't gladly suffer all the fools she finds in her living room. Lila's motivations in Sandler's script are sometimes murky — why she feels compelled, at this point, to talk to Tim remains something of a mystery — but Ndukwu imbues her with a believable weariness.
As Tim, Keenan has a manic energy that is at points hilarious, and nicely captures the writer's neuroses, but sometimes feels like it could be reined in a touch — some moments where there might be more variation in the character feel rushed.
But Thornton propels the action in the 135-minute (with intermission) play at a breakneck speed that serves the wit of Sandler's dialogue well, if feeling perhaps like there are places, particularly toward the play's end, where it might want just a bit more breathing room.
But it leaves enough room for the complex questions Sandler poses to percolate — and for the audience to consider whose story we feel drawn to.
Bang Bang runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Oct. 9.