Culture | Unmasking racism

Unmasking racism

Once in a while, it’s good to have someone remind you about one of those “bigger” societal issues that doesn’t seem to be as widespread a problem anymore. Canada automatically evokes the word multiculturalism, and as a McGill student, there is a lot of pride in being part of a culturally diverse educational institute. As such, racism is not always regarded as a continuous issue in Canada.

Of course, the overt, aggressive racist behaviour of 50 years ago is less likely to happen today, particularly within the school environment. It’s easy to forget, however, that the issue remains, lingering in various subtle forms, from cultural stereotypes to racist jokes that are appropriated into mainstream media. The Montreal-based Black Theatre Workshop’s production of Skin, although geared toward a younger audience, was one such reminder to reflect upon and question the issue of racism.

Written by Canadian playwright Dennis Foon, Skin debuted in 1986 and was intended to encourage youth audiences to ask questions about racism. The play revolves around four young people of different ethnicities, struggling to find a place within their Canadian communities. Initially, I did not expect much from the play, which seemed to have a typical storyline, or even the small theatre itself. But I came out of Skin feeling genuinely enlightened by the performance. What I was not aware of before I sat down was that The Black Theatre Workshop’s production of Skin was part of a school tour. In participation with Black History Month, Skin was an awareness campaign for younger students to foster dialogue about the issue of racism in our society, which has become increasingly difficult to detect.

The Black Theatre Workshop’s production of Skin is Tamara Brown’s directorial debut. As someone who lived through very similar experiences to the ones of the characters within the play, the project struck a chord with Brown. “My goal with this project is to start dialogue,” she says, “[and] to make a space, hopefully, where youths can speak up and say what’s on their minds and not have to feel sensitive about it…to open up dialogue and debate.” Skin’s cast consists of four actors, all of whom play multiple characters within several storylines.

The actors are local Quebeckers who brought their own experiences to portraying their respective characters, as they explained in a “talk-back” feature at the end of the play, where they encouraged audience members to ask questions and raise discussion about the stories they had just seen. Many of the questions asked by youths were familiar questions: Are these stories true? Did they happen to you? Do they still happen?

“Fewer incidences of overt racism does not mean that everybody is less racist,” Brown cautions. “Maybe it means that there are fewer people who are racist or it could mean that more people are careful about the way they behave. I mean, it’s in vogue to not be racist.” Racism, notes Brown, “is not appealing to a mass way of thinking. Being a racist or a red-neck or whatever, it’s vilified. It’s seen as awful, but that’s the present vogue. Is it really reflective of what’s going on in our hearts and minds? I think that because society is founded on a patriarchy [and] white supremacy, that we’re all plugged into a society that’s founded on those tenets.” Brown points out that despite the differences between racial behaviour today and that of the 1980s, Foon’s ultimate messages are still very clear, very present, and not going anywhere.

For her directorial debut, Brown handled the modest theatre space surprisingly well, using small costume changes and props to ease transitions between stories against the backdrop of one set. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Skin was the use of masks to portray the people who victimize the protagonists. The masks were Foon’s idea, employed to eliminate the idea of race in the victimizer and show the audience that anyone, of any background, could be in that position. Brown built on Foon’s concept by using large cut-out faces of Zac Efron and Ashley Tisdale, two stars who resonate well with young fans of the High School Musical film series. By using two popular figures to represent what the media portrays as “the perfect girl” and “the perfect guy,” Brown uses the same subtlety racism uses today, to ask her audience to compare the victimizers to the two seemingly “perfect” celebrities within the context of the play.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten to where we need to be,” she warns. “[I] think it would be dangerous to think that what remains to be changed in us as a society is insignificant, compared to what we’ve already overcome, you know? You get complacent and self-modified and then you end up repeating your history.”