It’s pretty easy to approve of the changes happening in Toronto’s Regent Park area. The community-focused housing project that had such auspicious beginnings in the 1970s had gradually morphed into a troubled area with a reputation for drugs, crime and poverty. So when the city and developers stepped in to bulldoze the run-down low-rises, most of the city praised the new plan for its mix of low-income housing and condominium development. Sure, the idea to deghettoize Toronto’s poor by placing them cheek by jowl with affordable condos holds great promise, but what about the families and community displaced by the tide of progress? Some of their stories are told in Darren Anthony’s new play Secrets of a Black Boy.
Youth councillor Sheldon knows first hand what can make or break a community. He puts in long hours at the local community centre working with at-risk kids, offering guidance and answers that don’t involve guns or narcotics. With the mass relocation, Sheldon fears his centre will be next on the chopping block — leaving the remaining kids without a safe place to figure things out.
Biscuit’s one of those kids. At 16 the young man (played by Samson Brown) has seen way too much gang violence and wants to put as much distance between himself and his peers stuck in gang culture. If the centre closes, Biscuit not only loses one of his few safe havens, but also the mentor he’s discovered in Sheldon. He may swagger about in pants two sizes too big, but Biscuit needs love, compassion and an escape route.
Another of the Sheldon’s charges is Jakes, a young man with a very big secret. Jakes (Eli Goree) actually has a pretty good idea of who he is and where he’s going, but he’s not sure that his friends and family will accept the truth that he’s gay.
Playwright Anthony has witnessed many of these stories up close in his work as a youth worker in the Regent Park area. Troubled by the mass exodus of families, Anthony was inspired to write about their experiences. Though he’d never written a play before, Anthony comes from good theatre stock: His sister is renowned playwright trey anthony, whose play ‘Da Kink in My Hair became a national phenomenon on both stage and television.
“Right after Darren saw the Kink he said I should do a male version of it,” says anthony, “but the Kink had turned into this franchise deal and I just didn’t have the time. So I told him to write it himself.”
Two years later, anthony’s brother presented her with a rough draft of Secrets of a Black Boy. The script showed promise, but anthony remained unconvinced of her involvement. “I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to produce it or if I had the right audience,” she says. “Everything else I’d done had been so woman-focused.”
Nevertheless, anthony arranged to workshop the piece and included it in a series she was producing at Harbourfront. The reaction blew away any lingering scepticism. The show sold out the 500 seat theatre and enjoyed an extended run reminiscent of ‘Da Kink’s meteoric rise. “It was the fastest selling show I’ve ever produced,” anthony says. She committed to producing a full production of Secrets, and sent her brother back to the drawing board to tighten and polish the play.
When veteran director Kimalhi Powell came on board, he wasn’t sure what to expect. As an openly gay man Powell was aware that there might be some hurdles in breaking down the barriers within the largely amateur cast. “The cast are young theatre artists from all over the GTA,” says Powell. “They live in Scarborough or Brampton, and they maybe have stereotypical views on sexuality.”
While there might have been some initial hesitancy, the group flourished in the atmosphere of mutual respect. “It’s hard as an out gay black male to be continuously seeing these labels of black men as homophobic, misogynist and even xenophobic. So for me, the piece does a service to the LGBT community with this image you may or may not have of black men. It’s more complex than you know.”
That image was certainly put to the test when one of the actors came out as trans during the rehearsal process. Samson Brown began transitioning from female to male last year and disclosed this to his cast mates after discussing it with anthony and Powell. “They were very supportive,” Brown says.
Like the character he plays, Brown was fortunate to find a mentor who supported him. Sadly, unlike Biscuit, Brown’s mentor was shot and killed in 2004. “He was black like myself and African like myself so it was really huge,” says Brown. “A lot of people think that in the black community it’s not looked highly upon to be gay or lesbian or transgender, but he was the biggest person to help me accept myself.”
Strengthened by this encouragement, Brown began to research trans issues online. Films like Boys Don’t Cry and The Aggressive helped him to go public, first with family and friends, and recently with his fellow cast members.
Powell is still struck by this courageous revelation.
“I live my life as an open, out individual so I didn’t have to do what Samson did,” says the director. “The rest of the cast processed it, but it will be very interesting to probe into the issue as rehearsals progress. The ultimate goal to me is a mutual relationship of trust.”
Secrets of a Black Boy also stars Shomari Downer, Al St Louis and DJ O-Nonymous, and features music by Gavin Bradley.