Small Axe, big shift

A few years ago, actor and playwright Andrew Kushnir was with a friend and colleague in their dressing room. The friend — who was from Jamaica — talked about being gay and coming from an oppressed culture. Kushnir, who’s of Ukrainian descent, said something in the order of, “I know how you feel.”

The friend gently and — as Kushnir often reminds us — generously, disagreed, giving rise to Small Axe, an exploration of what white people can and — and can’t ever — know. It’s on at The Theatre Centre until February 1.

Small Axe is documentary theatre; the text is drawn from interviews with lesbian and gay people of colour living in Canada. It’s delivered by five actors standing on platforms mounted on a simple scaffold, with Kushnir, front and centre, at stage level. He starts by telling the audience: “I am white; you are black,” framing the show as a a kind of theatrical address to his friend, but also setting up a dynamic of constantly shifting perspectives. We won’t be able to take any of what follows at face value.

There’s nothing more fascinating than people’s real stories, offered without pretense or manipulation. Having actors present them live provides so many more dimensions than any film; the human voice and body can invoke a whole world.

The initial stories are not-unfamiliar narratives of coming out, but the plot soon thickens to a murky brew of homophobia, racism and colonialism. Each story has an opportunity to stand on its own terms, then instantly, others layer and collide, making facile judgments impossible. Fragments circle back, gaining new levels of meaning every time they’re heard. Without losing sight of the horrors of homophobia in Jamaica, we discern the legacy of slavery that underlies it. The trauma is real, but just as real is the celebration of sexuality infusing all the stories.

“What is between stories?” asks Kushner. He had his own story, and tried to share it with his friend out of a simple desire to reach out to another person, never imagining that he might be opening a wound. And even now — as his respondents point out — Kushnir, the white guy, is the one standing centre stage, holding the microphone, not to mention the funding. He’s the one who gets to shape how the story will be told. It’s not the Jamaican story he’s telling, but his own story about recognizing his part in oppression.

Kushnir spends most of the play listening, and his task as an actor is hard. The stories may be grippingly dramatic; still, the main action of the play is internal. With his face, and some expressive movement as tools, Kushnir needs to convey what teachers of writing often disparage as a “shift in sensibility.” Small Axe is living proof that a shift in sensibility can both important and interesting. This play has been worked and reworked, torn apart and put back together a thousand times. To me, it shows. There’s a solidity and subtlety to this play, that could only have taken years to build.

The play wraps up with a more interactive segment. One of the speakers warns Kushnir against over-simplification. As a white person, and straight to boot, I can’t be the one to say whether he succeeds in avoiding it. I do know that Small Axe is a bid for attentiveness, patience and delicacy of feeling in a time of overblown plots and trite answers. I’m glad to live in a place where this kind of conversation can happen, even if its not often enough.

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