For a lot of queer Canadians, Jamaica has a paradoxical quality. On one hand, it’s a perpetually relaxed land of sand and surf, percolating with the spirit of peace and love typified by Bob Marley’s music. On the other, it’s one of the most virulently anti-gay countries in the Western Hemisphere where homosexuality is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and where roving gangs hunt down gay men for sport. But as Facing Home reveals, the island nation is actually far more complex than either of those stereotypes.
Co-created by KasheDance artistic director Kevin Ormsby and guest artist Chris Walker, it melds issues of sexuality with familiar songs from one of the world’s most influential musicians. Daily Xtra caught up with the pair to chat about the collaboration, using dance for social change and why queers should be hopeful for their homeland.
Daily Xtra: I understand this show was originally two separate works that you decided to combine. How did that come about?
Kevin Ormsby: I was working on a piece about Marley’s music and Chris was doing a piece about homophobia. We had showing together in March and after it finished we just looked at each other and realized these two things should be combined into a story exploring homophobia, but also love and redemption.
Chris Walker: Bringing the projects together meant examining the liberation that comes through equal rights and justice, preached so beautifully in Marley’s music. There’s a part of Jamaican culture that holds onto this fear attached to sexuality and so I’m looking at the violence and how it prevents queer individuals from actualizing and seeing themselves as part of society. At the core, we’re examining this idea of love and who has access to it, by juxtaposing these things to create a dialogue with the audience.
Besides the fact you’re both dance artists, why use dance to explore this subject matter?
Walker: I started working on a project a few years ago called A Yard Abroad looking at the idea of constructing a home away from home, a physical or metaphorical home. What came out of it was that so many young talented West Indians were actualizing outside their country of birth because they felt they couldn’t be themselves where they were from. So it was the idea of how homophobia can shape the physical and geographical movement of an individual, as well as how it can impact the individual body.
Ormsby: I saw the piece in New York and I remember saying to Chris that even though Canada takes so many gay refugees, when they come here they have to live subversively. They may come to experience the [Toronto] Village at night, but then they escape back to suburbs during the day where they put on a mask because it’s important to survival up there. I was curious to see how these attitudes that come from places where we come from are replicated in another space, keeping people from actualizing their potential because they’ve spent so much time hiding who they are.
Walker: We’ve been saying we want a work that creates multiple points of access for folks so I think the LGBTQ community will enjoy and understand the work. But we also really want the homophobic community, the folks who don’t understand or who’re still questioning to see the work so they can find a way to begin the dialogue.
In terms of getting some of these more homophobic people to attend, do you think that’s something that’s actually going to happen?
Ormsby: It’s already in process. We held a community gathering in March for a mostly West Indian audience and had a dialogue with them after. We’re also taking the work to Jamaica in 2016, so we’ll be performing for an audience of primarily straight individuals who are looking for a way to have that conversation.
Walker: It’s a feel-good production, but like any good piece of theatre there are very painful moments. Overall it’s about access to love and the beauty of love and loving each other, as projected through the music Marley created.
There’s obviously a contrast between the themes of peace and love preached in Marley’s music and the issues of homophobia you’re addressing. How do those two things rub up against each other?
Ormsby: There’s a huge sense of hope in Marley’s music and it’s also very poetic. There’s this through line about the body and it being as progressive and responsive as it can be. We’re looking at some double entendre in his music, like “No Woman No Cry,” which we’re using in terms of being empowered to move forward and have the confidence to get through the day rather than being about sadness. That conversation is the same whether you’re gay or straight.
As someone who’s never visited Jamaica, I have this idea it’s a horrible place to be gay both because of the laws and the anti-gay violence we hear about in the news. I’m curious to know what kind of pushback exists and if there’s a side of things we here in Canada don’t know about.
Walker: Absolutely. I’m so excited to be living in this time. They held a Pride parade in Jamaica last summer. It was very small but it was successful in that nobody was attacked. You saw gay people stand up and say we exist and demand to be recognized. The work J-FLAG is doing in terms of education and political advocacy has made very significant progress. The influence of American TV, which is very popular, has also helped in terms of transforming the dialogue and presenting healthy gay relationships in the media.
Ormsby: It’s also important to know Jamaica has a huge gay subculture that’s been surviving for years, which most people don’t know about because North American representation of the culture is so one sided. Of course it’s going to be scary to take the work there, but we believe Jamaica is ready for this dialogue.
(Facing Home: Love & Redemption
Thursday Nov, 26–Sunday, Nov 29, 2015
Aki Studio Theatre at Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St E, Toronto
(All photos courtesy of Christopher Cushman)