Stage Left: Belfry's Bang Bang aims high, taps into cultural zeitgeist

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One of the more fascinating debates fomenting in the arts today is the question of who gets to tell the story.

Should only First Nations writers pen stories reflecting First Nations traditions? Should only a black actor play Othello? Should only a gay man or woman write about a gay man’s or woman’s experiences?

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Playwright Kat Sandler wades boldly into the discussion with her play Bang Bang. This two-hour show — essentially a drama with comedic aspects — is about a black woman who quits her job as a policewoman after she shoots a young man. She mistakenly believed the black teenager, who survived, was reaching for a weapon. In fact, he was leaning over to pull out a driver’s licence.

The story — a sensational “cop shoots innocent teen” yarn — achieves notoriety in the media. Lila, the former policewoman, is so devastated she becomes a depressive recluse, moving in with her mom and becoming an enthusiastic smoker and drinker.

We first meet mother and daughter when they receive an unannounced visit from a playwright who has written a drama inspired by the incident.

Bang Bang, commissioned by Toronto’s Factory Theatre, was widely acclaimed after its 2018 première. A just-opened Belfry Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production reveals how carefully Sandler examines all sides of the discussion. This is the playwright’s central goal and she presents it with passion and intelligence.

That said, Bang Bang is far from a perfect evening of theatre. The play is rather unwieldy. It’s not always easy to believe in the characters as presented.

And under Kelly Thornton’s direction, the tone of this comedy/ drama mix is uneven. Still, Bang Bang will get you talking about the issues on the ride home — and that’s always a good thing.

Tom Keenan plays Tim, a playwright who barges into the home of Lila (Beverly Ndukwu) when no one immediately answers his knock. Annoyed by his audacity, Lila’s mother, Karen (Warona Setshwaelo), slams the door on his foot.

Tim lies on their sofa, icing his foot, while mother and daughter angrily question his decision to create a play based on their family tragedy.

Who, they ask, is Tim to intrude into their lives this way, to assume he can write with authenticity and authority about a horrendous situation faced by a young black female policewoman?

Tim — Jewish, nebbish and hyperkinetic — defends himself with the righteous fury of a middle-class liberal. He insists he’s an artist possessing the right, the artistic licence, to write about whatever he pleases.

Besides, Tim did plenty of research — interviewing black people and watching YouTube videos of police killings.

Lila and Karen aren’t convinced. Bang Bang then shifts into high gear with the arrival of actor Jackie (Sebastien Heins) and his bodyguard Tony (Alex Poch-Goldin). A former child star, the winsome Jackie is an oily egomaniac in Day-Glo camouflage pants and socks embossed with the Hollywood sign. It turns out he’s starring in a movie based on Tim’s successful play, something that further horrifies Lila.

Sandler’s premises can be hard to swallow. Would a playwright really barge unannounced into the house of the person who inspired his controversial play? (Tim ostensibly makes the visit to break the news about the movie.)

Jackie’s arrival, also unannounced, stretches credulity in classic sitcom style. He’s supposedly there to research his role — in the film, he intends to play a male version of Lila.

After everyone arrives, Lila hits on an idea. She suggests that she, her mother and her guests act out Tim’s play. The play-within-a-play device is clever, adding complexity and richness to the proceedings.

Lila, for instance, plays the part of the boy she shot. That said, in the real world, would a woman such as Lila, deeply emotionally damaged by her experiences, ever make such a preposterous suggestion?

On paper, the character of Lila is the most interesting and original. She’s a black female cop who opened fire on a black teenager. The socio-political ramifications are provocative.

Yet we get little sense of what makes Lila tick. Mostly, she’s a torrent of unremitting fury.

We, the audience, cannot blame her. Who in her place wouldn’t respond similarly?

Nonetheless, in theatrical terms, this potentially fascinating character seems oddly two-dimensional (although during Wednesday’s performance, Ndukwu did shine in a climactic sequence in which Lila gives everyone a taste of what her experience was really like).

Overall, we’re presented with a character whose wall of exasperated fury is difficult to penetrate.

Some of the other characters are stereotypes. The notion of the former child-star who blooms into an obnoxious egomaniac has become a movie trope. And Tony, the bodyguard, is a typical Sopranos-like palooka. To his credit Poch-Goldin — a good actor — did glean some of the evening’s biggest laughs.

It’s an ambitious project, certainly. To her credit, Sandler covers most of the bases. (The irony, of course, is that she’s a white playwright writing about a white playwright criticized for cultural appropriation.)

Whether Bang Bang will be produced a decade from now is debatable. Yet few can argue Sandler hasn’t tapped into the cultural zeitgeist with admirable zeal and perspicacity.

Bang Bang runs until Nov. 24 at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria.

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