If you caught the premiere of Mx at the 2019 Fringe Festival—a mounting that won the New Play Prize—you’d know it’s far from a relaxing theatre experience. The show serves audiences with a challenge to confront the unsettling truth that white supremacy is alive and well within us, our surroundings and our cultural narrative.
The play is presented in the form of a daytime talk show, with guest Max (Lili Robinson)—a mixed race individual looking for answers about their heritage. The piece exists in a magical reality, where Mz. Nancy (Alisha Tashan-Davidson) the black talk show host, and the uber-white Samantha (Emily Jane King) pull on either side of Max’s mixed heritage. As they spar over which side should ‘rule,’ Max questions what it means to be mixed race, and how to celebrate the different cultures and heritages that comes with that identity.
I had the opportunity to sit with actor and creator, Lili Robinson, and gain some insight into her work.
SAD: Can you speak a bit to your theatre journey?
LILI: I was lucky throughout my time at Studio 58 to have a couple of outside placements, one of which was with Karen Heinz, participating in her show Crawl Space. Karen Heinz is known as a Canadian clown master, and one of the top players in buffon and neo-buffon. Traditional bouffon style takes an element of external ‘deformity’, and uses that deformity in the bouffon masks and costumes. Working with Karen and picking her brain about bouffon, I was very interested in the ways that her way of looking at clowning and bouffon very boldly takes politically charged topics and cracks them open, talking about issues in a way that society doesn’t like to talk about. I suppose it was there where some seeds of Mx were planted, before I even really knew it. The clown and the bouffon characters allow for a degree of confrontation and it is in their theatrical nature to assume this awareness of the audience, and this degree of “I see you seeing me.” I really wanted to utilize those characters in this piece, since it allows the fourth wall to fall back. Suddenly there isn’t the option for the audience to “lean back” and “relax” and become passive, like so much theatre allows for.
SAD: The play dwells into the realm of magical realism. Ancestors are called upon, and the dimensions of time are tampered with—although it is enjoyably mysterious as to what time we are even existing within. Can you speak to that choice and do you feel that some of the topics explored couldn’t be explored as explicitly if the work was set in a more realistic space?
LILI: Well, first of all, I have a great interest in magical realism, and the types of theatre that can live in that setting. There were lots of elements of theatre that I wanted to call upon within Mx, due to their effectiveness in addressing poignant, political and social issues—such as the role of the bouffon. Spaces of magical realism have a certain freedom in addressing social issues head on since they do not have to abide by the rules of our known reality. Complex ideals can manifest themselves into tangible characters and props, such as the puppet talking map used within this piece that is meant to guide Max in their journey through their ancestry.
SAD: Max is somewhat pressured to make a choice between their mixed heritage, through the manifestation of Mz. Nancy and Samantha. In what way do you hope and feel the piece deals with this question of choice between what cultural spaces mixed race individuals occupy?
LILI: The recognition of mixed race individuals occupying their own space has a lot of value in preventing the erasure of the specific experience and histories of those who are of mixed race, heritage and culture. The pressure for bi-racial folks to choose between cultural spaces is problematic since it enforces a binary view of the world, to feel like you have to be one thing or the other. Regardless, I have felt that pressure to be very real.
Mx focuses on my own experiences as a white and black person, and the history of interracial relations between white and black people in North America— because that is the closest thing to my heart. There are pressures of choice that go back to the history of how black folks got to this continent by slavery, and the ongoing racial tensions of that between white and black folk. One thing the show is doing is showing the dangers of pretending that we’re all the same and there are no differences. The differences are fantastic and they make our world what it is.
SAD: Could you comment on how the phrase/idea ‘your people’ is explored within this piece?
LILI: Mz. Nancy uses that phrase in a few different ways throughout the show. For me it speaks to the idea of community, culture and belonging. If you don’t know who your people are, then you can find yourself very lonely, and I think that can be a big part of the mixed race experience. At least it has been in points in my life. There is this idea that Mz. Nancy skewers off the top: we are all part of the human race, we all bleed the same blood. Part of that is true, but it completely washes out the truth, reality and history that we’re not all benefited by the system we live under, and we don’t all function as the neutral.
Something my dramaturge and I spoke about a lot was this idea of human neutral: in our society a thin, white, cis, able-bodied young man is human neutral and everything outside of that is divergent. This idea of ‘your people’, encapsulates knowing where you come from, and recognizing differences as a strength, and as something that doesn’t need to divide us.
A sense of belonging helps you survive a system that isn’t necessarily built for you. For mixed race people that can be particularly complex. For example, I grew up in a white family and had a very happy and very privileged childhood, but also became aware that my ancestors were the brunt of white supremacy. It’s conflicting to realize that the other side of my ancestry has been oppressed by the systems of the other side of my ancestry, systems that I’m very familiar with and have benefitted me throughout my life.
SAD: How do you feel about Vancouver’s treatment of making, creating and respecting cultural space and race? Do you personally feel as though there are resources, spaces and conversations supporting the topics Mx engages with?
LILI: I think there is a really exciting surge of black artists and black community organizers carving out space for black folks in Vancouver. I think that there are growing numbers in our black population in Vancouver, which is helping spur these initiatives to connect our communities, because the black community is really spread out. A lot of the black population in the Lower Mainland is literally on the margins in Surrey, New West and Coquitlam. Finding ways to join together and build more of a sense of central community can prove to be difficult. But I think as a whole, Vancouver has a lot to learn in what it means to actually embrace and respect black culture instead of just appropriating it. It’s a funny place to be, because there are so few black people.
SAD: What call to action do you hope for this piece to inspire, especially within white audience members?
LILI: I hope that this work sparks an awareness that black people are here in this city, and our lives are present and relevant in Vancouver. Anti-black racism is something that many Canadians associate with the United States, however, these ideas are ever present here too and black folks deal with these attitudes on an everyday basis. And lest we forget that Canadian ‘culture’ is wrapped up in white supremacy and colonial violence. I hope to bring some new thinking around that and provoke some inward reflection in all audience members, white and non-white folks alike. Additionally, I hope this piece to bring a bit of reality check to how we fetishize and create spectacle out of black lives, black bodies and black death. Black culture is consumed and commodified without giving weight or thought to the people who that culture originates within and giving the history due respect.
There’s a joke within the piece talking about that voice you use when captioning your Instagram stories, because it’s a prevalent thing to use GIFs of black people and black slang. I assumed that language like “yas kween”, “lit”, and “on fleek”, was internet speak, but 90 per cent of this stuff originates in black communities and black queer communities.
Lastly, I hope for this piece to reveal and remind us all of how embedded systems of white supremacy are in our lives and how most of us are complicit in many ways. The more intersections of marginality you’re at, the more aware you are of systems of oppression that exist in our society. But so many of us benefit from white, patriarchal systems—whether we are aware of it or not—and the only way we can begin to dismantle these systems is becoming aware of how they benefit us. How can we use our various privileges to lift those who are most marginalized? We can’t do anything if we keep pretending it’s not there, and like it’s not part of our daily lives.