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Belfry Theatre's Bang Bang hits hard amid humour

ON STAGE What: Bang Bang Where: Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave. When: Oct. 31-Nov. 24 Tickets: $49-$59 from tickets.belfry.bc.
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Tom Keenan is playwright Tim Bernbaum and Beverly Ndukwu is police officer Lila Hines in Bang Bang, at the Belfry Theatre. Toronto’s Kat Sandler tackles difficult cultural issues in a play that “makes you laugh and then it makes you cry.”

ON STAGE

What: Bang Bang
Where: Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Oct. 31-Nov. 24
Tickets: $49-$59 from tickets.belfry.bc.ca or by phone from 250-385-6815

When Kelly Thornton moved to Winnipeg from Toronto last year to begin her term as the artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, she inherited a 2019-20 theatre season that included Bang Bang, Toronto playwright Kat Sandler’s topical examination of race relations, police brutality and cultural appropriation.

Thornton signed on to direct the critically acclaimed play, but not without some reservation. She knew helming a play about the black experience would be difficult for a white director such as herself, and she proceeded with caution.

“I was really questioning whether it actually should be a black director and whether I was the right person to tell this story,” Thornton said during a break from rehearsals at the Belfry Theatre, where Bang Bang begins its run today. “I sat down and said: ‘I just feel super-uncomfortable.’ ”

After discussing her predicament with Audrey Dwyer, associate artistic director at the Royal MTC, Thornton warmed to the idea. Dwyer, who is black, believed Thornton was precisely the right choice because of her valid concerns and because she was uneasy about the idea. Dwyer was hired as a consulting director for the production, in order to widen the perspectives at the table. Thornton thought this was an important aspect of the production when it was being mounted in Winnipeg, a city with a deep racial gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents.

“As you’re unpacking a play and dealing with the ideas inside of a play, sometimes, you can get into kind of uncomfortable territory. It just allowed us to kind of have an open dialogue and learn from each other. We sat inside of the uncomfortable truths that the play brings up.”

Bang Bang tells the story of black police officer Lila Hines (played by Beverly Ndukwu), who mistakenly shot an unarmed black man while on duty. Her story is being adapted by a white playwright Tim Bernbaum (Tom Keenan) with dubious intentions, who must win the approval of Lila and her suspicious mother, Karen Hines (Warona Setshwaelo), in order to take the story to Hollywood. To facilitate the process, Bernbaum has brought along the movie’s potential star (Sébastien Heins), whose white, Goodfellas-style bodyguard (Alex Poch-Goldin) is part of the disconcerting package.

Many of the scenes are played for laughs, which was a difficult undertaking at first, Thornton said. Sandler occasionally steers Bang Bang into situational comedy, which meant Thornton had to keep the racially charged drama at the core of the story from being overshadowed. “It’s an interesting balance. It’s a smart play because it really digs into a lot of big issues, cultural appropriation and systemic racism and police profiling and violence in the black community by the police. That subject matter is not what you ever think you can write a comedy about, but [Sandler] has written it kind of like a collision course. And yet, it’s so funny.”

Thornton has received multiple Dora Award nominations during her career, so she was well-suited for the job of bringing Sandler’s vision to the stage intact. There were hurdles, especially with regard to preserving Sandler’s voice and intent; Sandler, who is Jewish, made the Bernbaum character something of an alter-ego in Bang Bang, and his lines in the play show that the playwright was grappling with cultural appropriation when she wrote Bang Bang, Thornton said.

“Some of it is awkward,” the director said with a laugh. “Comedy is hard because it’s all timing. You risk it all with comedy that has a social commentary. You go down the dark roads of laughing at things that are uncomfortably true. This play makes you laugh and then it makes you cry. So many people have said to me that they had to spend hours talking about the play after seeing it. That’s the plan. If that happens, Bang Bang is doing its job.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com