Review: Tableau D’Hôte Theatre shines light on systemic racism with “Blackout”

Compelling new play premieres on 50th anniversary of the Sir George Williams Affair

Michelle Rambharose, Gita Miller, Kym Dominique Ferguson, Sophie-Thérèse Stone-Richards, Briauna James, and Shauna Thompson portray six students in search of justice in Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s “Blackout” (Photo: Jaclyn Turner)

What is essential theatre if not original, urgent, daring, community-oriented, and deeply rooted in humanity?

Meeting our cardinal criteria for the indispensable is the lineage of creations by the multi META-winning company Tableau D’Hôte Theatre (“Angélique”, “Hosanna”), who here conceives its newest brainchild in partnership with Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal.

Written and devised by a collective of Montreal theatre heavyweights, Blackout is a technicolor reimagining of the factual events of the Sir George Williams Affair – the largest student uprising in Canada. Making its world premiere in the exact same building where it all went down, the pristine production marks the 50th anniversary of the historical incidents, honouring a landmark moment of Black resistance and unity.

The provocative play thus vividly re-examines the controversial events of exactly half a century ago when six West-Indian students of Sir George Williams University (now known as Concordia) lodged racism complaints against their biology professor for unfair grading. In January of 1969, over 200 students joined forces to occupy the computer centre on the ninth floor of the Hall Building in protest of the school’s failure to adequately respond to the charges. What began as a peaceful sit-in, however, culminated in hundreds of arrests, a mysterious fire, and millions of dollars worth of material damages.

People precede property in this sympathetic retelling, however – one that steers clear of the sensationalism of the “riots” and focuses instead on framing the individual and collective human narratives of “no justice, no peace” leading up to the headlining incidents. Notably featuring an ensemble of twelve actors of colour on stage, Blackout airs the oppressed and marginalized voices of the affair, celebrating their courage to speak and stand in the face of discrimination.

(Photo: Jaclyn Turner)

The galvanizing story of Black resistance fuses the performative talents of Lucinda Davis, Kym Dominique Ferguson, Briauna James, Gita Miller, Michelle Rambharose, Sophie-Thérèse Stone-Richards, Shauna Thompson, Dakota Jamal Wellmen, Maryline Chery, Marie Hall, Justin Johnson and Jahlani Knorren in a vigorous production directed by Tableau D’Hôte co-founder and artistic director (and Concordia theatre alumnus) Mathieu Murphy-Perron, who is here assisted by Tamara Brown and Shanti Gonzales. Kate Hagemeyer stage manages as Diane Roberts contributes with dramaturgy.

While textually driven, the highly stylized and theatrical creation is also heavily propelled by movement and musicality, swiftly dancing between realism and a more ethereal, poetic realm. Rodney Diverlus, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, draws from Caribbean as well as protest culture as inspiration for his flavoured, vernacular, and polyrhythmic choreography. Blackout‘s message of unity most prominently manifests itself in its choral work, and it is in the moments of numbered synchronicity where the high-tech but huge-hearted spectacle most thrills.

Of the striking design elements, Sophie El-Assaad’s towering, monumental set establishes a concrete (pun intended) sense of institutional dominance (the ambitious production is Tableau d’Hôte’s technically most impressive to date). Noémi Poulin and Audrey-Anne Bouchard infuse rich colour onto the greyscale palette with costumes and lighting, respectively. Rob Denton and Elena Stoodley’s original soundscape of complex electronic loops make for a cadenced battleground environment. The visuals are fully rendered dynamic, however, with Jaclyn Turner’s beautifully integrated projections that comprise both abstracted imagery and raw video footage from the affairs. A combined aesthetic of the contemporary and the traditional ascertains the piece as timely but not time-specific – recognizable and relevant as ever.

(Photo: Jaclyn Turner)

Of an unexpected humour and levity, Blackout triumphs in unveiling the tragic through the comic. The sense of the absurd is cleverly captured in the form of the school administrators, with acting principal Douglass B. Clarke (after whom the very performing venue is named, yes) appearing among the many caricatured figures. Characters are differentiated through accessorization – white lab coats, ties, and glasses – in whimsical accentuation of race and profession. Among other amusing yet poignant elements of the layered composition is the recurring motif on the delays of bureaucracy. Ah, and you’ll never cogitate on the rebranding of “Concordia” in the same way again.

Although there is generally a stylistic and thematic cohesiveness to the polished production, the numerous sources of creative input are discernible in the potpourri of scripted scenes (the writing unit is comprised of eight members, and the creative differences are palpable at times. The aggressive fourth wall shattering early in the second act is a high-impact head-scratcher, for one, but you recover from the mild oddity in embracing the outliers of expression.) The eminent artistic forces at play are, most importantly, in harmony in pulling the heartstrings.

Indeed – there is no greater barometer of the puissance of a piece than visceral audience reaction. No written review can adequately depict the expressions of pride, grief, and hope experienced and witnessed among onlookers on opening night.

Thoroughly pertinent and empowering, Blackout is, in and of itself, a commemorative milestone event in the steps towards social justice by bringing systemic racism to the fore. Arts, science, and politics intersect in a compelling story of community and collaboration – an indisputable highlight of the Montreal theatre scene this season.

Read our recent interview with the creators and performers of “Blackout” here.

Performances: January 30th – February 10th, 2019
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Venue: D.B. Clarke Theatre – Concordia University
1455 Boulevard de Maisonneuve West, Montréal
Admission: Student/Senior/Reduced: $22 | General: $27
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