Though decades separate Bonnie Farmer’s two plays, her new Gollywog has the makings of a hit.
|Playwright Bonnie Farmer|
Bonnie Farmer was born in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and came to Montreal as a toddler when her mother went to work as a cook in a convent. “They weren’t expecting a cook with a baby in tow. Our room was right off the kitchen.” The family only lived there a year or so, Farmer explained in an interview. “I kept getting into things. It was dangerous. I remember these beautiful marble floors. I remember seeing the nuns in their pyjamas.”
“Not that there was anything wrong with the books themselves,” she points out. “The problem was the pictures.”
According to Farmer, Sambo “is really a hero. He outsmarts tigers. But the kids in class would titter and look at me. You felt singled out.”
Racist iconography is central to Farmer’s new play, Gollywog, which had a staged reading on Monday, February 13th as part of the Black Theatre Workshop’s Discovery Series.
Actors Lucinda Davis, Nouella Grimes, Alexandria Haber, Christian Paul, and Brett Watson were directed by Quincy Armorer, who took the stage at the outset to explain what the gollywog was. He mentioned, too, that it’s a part of a Black history with which many people, particularly younger people, are unfamiliar.
The Gollywog is a blackfaced African American caricature created in the late 1800s. Since the 1960s, the doll has become the subject of a great deal of controversy, with Europeans attempting to decide whether it is a valuable cultural artefact or a racist insult.
|A gollywog doll|
Farmer described the gollywog doll's key features, which were nearly identical to Little Black Sambo’s: black skin, kinky hair, goggly white eyes, and an oversized, toothy grin.
Gollywog’s main character, Mavis Daniels, came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as did Farmer herself. “It was the time of Black Power,” Farmer says, “and so Mavis never expected to see those racist images like the gollywog or Little Black Sambo again.” Yet gradually, Mavis starts seeing the hoary stereotype at every turn, among toys, books from her grandson’s school library, billboards, even gingerbread men.
The play opens near Christmas. Mavis’s daughter Victoria is living with Mavis, her young son Jamal in tow, while she goes back to school to study nursing. The apartment superintendent, Jeff Cochrane, their neighbour and Victoria’s childhood companion, is gradually revealed as a ne’er-do-well white sorta supremacist. Which doesn’t stop a romance with Victoria from developing. Mavis is touchy and increasingly outspoken. She starts seeing racist behaviour and imagery everywhere. There are incidents on the bus and at Jamal’s school. Is Mavis losing it? This is the world of Gollywog.
“It’s up to the audience to decide if Mavis is crazy,” Farmer says, though she herself doesn’t think so. “I’ve seen a number of ads recently that really do put me in mind of the gollywog.” She would only mention them off the record.
“Every so often, there’s an instant where white people don black face here. I think a lot of the racism in Canada is unconscious, so I’m trying to bring that across in Jeff’s character. I’m hoping the audience will see the other side of these images and the [racist] words that are said. I think in the US, people are more aware. They still use the words, but they’re not doing it unconsciously.”
It’s probably a question of numbers, she continues. “There aren’t as many black people here. It isn’t as much ‘in your face.’ Here, racism is directed against Blacks but, even more, against natives.” (More interesting discussion on this question can be found in this article by Clarence Baynes)
Farmer wrote the first scene of Gollywog in the winter of 2010; several more came during workshops she took with local playwright Colleen Curran, who was also instrumental in helping Farmer develop her first play. Irene and Lillian Forever, with Sonya Biddle and Carole Anderson, was a 1986 Quebec Drama Festival finalist and winner of Best Direction for the late Lorena Gale. Not bad for a newbie.
Farmer also wrote a play for her Master’s thesis in Concordia University’s creative writing program. Ike’s Fiddle is set in Nova Scotia and concerns two brothers and their rivalry over the wife of one of them. It’s never been produced, but something makes me think this might change in the near future… :)
Last May, Caribbean playwright David Edgecombe mentored Farmer and Gollywog at the Black Theatre Workshop. Edgecombe was a founding member of Black Theatre Workshop and also served as resident playwright/director there. He is “internationally known for several plays, including Strong Currents and Coming Home to Roost. I’d seen his stuff 30 years ago. I had a playbill from one of the plays—” it was Strong Currents—“and I brought it for him to sign.”
When I spoke with her several days before the final rehearsals, Farmer was clearly experiencing butterflies, excited, nervous, and altogether inspiring.
The play itself was extremely well received. It never dragged, was clear as a bell, tied up all loose ends, and provoked lots and lots of laughs. And all this over two hours and despite the total absence of sets or props.
Nouella Grimes, doing most of the heavy lifting as Mavis, was outstanding—especially during the police station monologue—and despite evident overheating in wig, turtleneck and sweater, while Lucinda Davis nailed Victoria’s more self-involved worldview. Alexandria Haber and Christian Paul played the school librarian and school principal to maximum hilarity. My sole cavil concerns Victoria’s boyfriend Jeff’s character—making him white a supremacist was a tad extreme, but his layabout behaviour and blame of others for his own failings—notably his drug and booze induced laziness—was bang on.
As the evening drew to a close and the audience rose from the not-ready-for-prime-theatre-time seating, I asked Bonnie how she felt. Which was redundant, really, because the answer was writ large on her face: "Great!"
Originally published on The Rover.