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Femininity and brotherhood

Catherine Hernandez and Sebastién Heins’s plays question identity at AfteRock

The Femme Playlist and Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera will play side by side at this year’s afteRock Plays festival.

Catherine Hernandez

Queer femme mama and artistic powerhouse Catherine Hernandez expects — and indeed prefers — to raise questions with her work. In the wake of the typhoon and then devastating earthquake in the Philippines in 2012, she immersed herself in a lifeboat full of dirty water without access to food for 24 hours. Created as an endurance performance, Hernandez forced thousands of viewers (live and by video feed) to grapple with their discomfort as they watched a single human survive such conditions and interrogate their own reactions to the evolving humanitarian crisis. In her new piece, The Femme Playlist, Hernandez is ready to ask another big question: why is femininity so important?

“We are emerging from many years in the queer community, believing that embodying masculinity was a way to fight against homophobia,” Hernandez says via email. “But to understand the sacredness of femininity is to push aside colonial notions. And that is dangerous. So I would love for people to walk away from the show understanding that things like adornment, like self-care and sisterhood, are a sacred part of humanity.”

In many ways, this question helps a theatregoer understand the natural match between The Femme Playlist and the other performance in the pairing, Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, written and performed by the award-winning Sebastién Heins, who got his stage start playing Simba in The Lion King. Heins is also asking questions about authenticity, about façade and intention, in his performance about two brothers whose rise to hip-hop fame surprises them both with what shakes out. But for Heins, the work is fictional — “I don’t think my identity is interesting enough to write a play about!” he writes — where Hernandez’s work is autobiographical. There are many avenues to the truth of things.

Arising out of b current’s 12th annual Rock.Paper.Sistaz Festival last year, b current’s artistic director (and DeGrassi alum) Jajube Mandiela says she was inspired to combine these two pieces for this second co-production with Buddies (billed as afteRock plays, the two shows are performed on alternating nights) because of their unconventional storytelling. Each of the plays is a solo show but has multiple characters: Heins plays both brothers in Brotherhood, and Hernandez plays herself, her mother, her daughter and more as The Femme Playlist progresses.

Both performances have also grown, slowly, over time. The Femme Playlist got its start when Catherine Hernandez was invited by Ron Jones of Harlem World Radio to participate in the format of his show — to tell the story of her life through a playlist. Over the next few years, Hernandez expanded and refined the work, “stringing it together like beads,” encouraged by a collective of queer femmes of colour who call themselves Brace New Girls. At the inaugural gathering, Toronto multidisciplinary artist, and that day’s facilitator, Kim Katrin Milan said, “Everything you are saying is important. Keep going.” That’s not a message queer women of colour hear very often, and Hernandez heeded it.

Heins, for his part, started Brotherhood under more formal aegis: the National Theatre School. Tasked with turning in a 15-minute solo-performance, Heins reached across disciplines to combine a longtime personal love of hip hop with a new craft, vocal masque, to imagine what it would have been like to have a brother. The question has inspired Heins, an only child, for much of his life, and the twin expressions of hip hop and vocal masque — layered, stylized, fluid and full of advances and retreats — gave him a voice to consider the question. In the years since, he’s performed Brotherhood in a variety of forms as he continues to “consider and create black stories . . . and the richness of black culture.”

It’s reasonable to wonder, in this day of artistic oversharing, whether these performances might just be extended diary entries. Let the reader be reassured: both performances are beautiful and thoughtful pieces of work, well directed by Toronto treasure Gein Wong, in the case of The Femme Playlist, and Independent Aunties member Karin Randoja, for Brotherhood. Mandiela, in discussing them, talks about the portions of each play that give her “the tingles” as the moments of transformation: when Heins morphs in slow motion between the two completely different physicalizations of each brother and when Hernandez embodies her own daughter with a sweet fierceness that slows the love and will of both. “Still,” she writes. “I still get the tingles every time I see it.”

With art, culture, transformation, big questions, dancing and the tingles in the mix, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone not wanting to run out and see this groundbreaking work. Should you be on the fence about which play to see, b current and Buddies have thoughtfully provided multiple opportunities to see both shows in the same night for a reduced price — just another way our local queer cultural workers make Toronto very, very lucky.