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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Discussion: David Sklar on Homegrown in Montreal

One Event, One City, One Dozen
The play doesn’t live up to its hype.
by David Sklar

On July 16th, I attended the public reading of Homegrown, in Montreal at Le Cagibi.  Originally, Montreal wasn’t on the list of cities planning to do a staged reading of this controversial play, but it would have seemed out of step had we not contributed to this cross-country support for artistic work. Montreal and Toronto artists Daniel Beirne, Katherine Cullen, Reuben Ward and Ned Zimmerman took to the obstructed stage a half hour late. Expecting a huge turn out, I showed up a half hour early but realizing that this was a last minute event (I got the invite from Facebook, the night before) no more than a dozen people showed up.  

On hearing that her ex-husband used to teach Abdelhaleem in high school, she joyfully skips off to meet him in prison.

The reason why companies such as Aluna Theatre and the New Theatre of Ottawa are pledging to produce this work, all has to do with the controversial decision the Government of Canada made in not renewing its funding to the Toronto SummerWorks Festival.  For the past five years, SummerWorks has received government grants and support.  A couple of weeks before the start of this year’s festival, Michael Rubenfeld, the artist director of the festival, found out that he would not receive the 48,000 dollar grant (20% of his budget) and was left scrounging for new sources of income.  He immediately had to raise the ticket prices by 50% and had to start looking for funding elsewhere. We don’t know whether the cuts were related to the show being put on but it is rather fishy when our P.M.’s office stated a year earlier, “we are extremely disappointed public money is going towards funding plays that glorify terrorism."  And bang, no more moolah!  My CharPo Colleague, Joel Fishbane, wrote an excellent article on the controversy, so I will not bore you with a carbon copy of what he said. Suffice it to say, times they are a changin’.   

Homegrown tells the story of Shareef Abdelhaleem, one of the “Toronto 18”, accused of the foiled bomb plot to blow up parts of Toronto and the Parliament building with an added bonus of beheading the Prime Minister. The protagonist is Catherine Frid, the unsatisfied lawyer/playwright looking for a story.  On hearing that her ex-husband used to teach Abdelhaleem in high school, she joyfully skips off to meet him in prison. 

Before the play started, Katherine Cullen, who read the part of the hopeful playwright, began by addressing the audience by saying, (loosely-based-quote) “We are not here to judge whether this play is any good, but the fact that it has the right to be heard."  Not the best promotion of a play I’ve heard!    

Frid’s naiveté in entering a world of terrorism and espionage leaves her  with a rather flat persona. Her ex-husband described her as being a “classic Canadian, so naïve”, looking for nobility in everyone and desperately trying to find the injustice in Canadian government. Moreover, Abdelhaleem is a kitten-loving fanatic who of course wouldn’t hurt a fly.  The only problem is that he eventually admits to being involved in the plot but only to reduce to size of the terrorist act.  He says he convinced his co-conspirators to change the bombing time from noon to 6am so that there would be fewer casualties. But, alas, he wasn’t involved in the plot.  To top it all off, he doesn’t call himself a terrorist, but rather an extremist.       

While I don’t believe this play came near to “glorifying” terrorism but if there is a link to losing funding over this play, it needs to be addressed.

Frid’s character keeps bringing up that she wants to write a play about his captivity. One thing that really bugs me when seeing a show is that the thrust of the play turns into the need to write a play about the events a character is experiencing.  How about just telling a story.    

While I don’t believe this play came near to “glorifying” terrorism, if there is a link to losing funding over this play, it needs to be addressed.  However, the play doesn’t live up to its hype.  It’s almost as if we don’t trust ourselves as Canadian artists to write interesting stories that we need to add a dash of terror to promote our work. The scenes were choppy, the characters were one-dimensional and you left the space feeling you hadn’t understood Abdelhaleem or uncovering any new information on how you define terror.  

There is something to be said about the right to be heard.  That is all Abdelhaleem wants throughout the play.  To explain himself and the role he played.  With Frid’s help, he finally gets to have his day in court. And we are given the darker side of our government in hiding information and silencing individuals. Perhaps that is the message of the play. That whether or not we want to hear something, or whether we feel it has any value, we need to appreciate the fact that everyone and every piece of work has the right to be heard. It just doesn’t mean it has much value.  

Read also Gaëtan L. Charlebois's discussion of the controversy

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