Did you hear about Toyin Agbetu’s act of heroism? He was the man who disrupted the bicentenary service marking the 1807 act to abolish the slave trade yesterday at Westminster Abbey yesterday. I woke up to a photo of him on the front page of The Toronto Star. In the photo, he stands a few feet away from the queen making a speech about what an outrage it is that neither the queen nor the British Prime Minister have apologized for England’s very significant role in the slave trade. Royson James writes (and I might be wrong, but I detected a gleeful tone):
with his voice ricocheting off the hundreds of statues and monuments in one of Christendoms’s most famous edifices, a lone protester yesterday halted Britain’s national service…Security and church officials hesitated…which white man wanted to be photographed hauling a black man out of church in handcuffs on the day the nation came to seek forgiveness for a practice the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has just called “this atrocity” and “universal sinfulness”
Toyin Agbetu is the founder and head of Ligali (www.ligali.org), an organization in
Britain that challenges racist representations in culture and the media. His press pass got him into the church and just a few steps away from British dignitaries. And so he took his space, he made his speech, and then later, once security figured out what to do, he was carted away and arrested. In the hallowed church, Agbetu shouted out a truth that not enough people are speaking aloud. Why aren’t enough British people asking: Why does the monarchy still exist? What have they stolen from people like us and others around the world? Why has there not been a war crime tribunal?
Toyin, congratulations on your bravery.
Alright, well, I might reveal myself to be the geek I am this week. And it is all because of my seven-year-old nephew’s love for Harry Potter, or “HP” as he calls him.
I traveled with my sister, brother-in-law and my nephew, Kiran, in their old station wagon to Charleston, West Virginia to attend my cousin’s wedding this past weekend. Including stops and a long wait at the border, it’s a ten-hour trip each way. How did we pass the time? We listened to five double-sided audio tapes of Harry Potter borrowed from the St. Catharines’ public library. The set contains 19 double-sided cassettes, so there was no danger of us running out of Harry. Before this road trip, I didn’t have much appreciation for Harry Potter. I’d seen one of the first movies years ago and thought it was entertaining. I witnessed the craze develop, heard about JK Rowling’s amazing success as a writer, saw my younger siblings getting hooked on each subsequent book. Now I understand what all the fuss was about. I think what I enjoyed most was how JK Rowling sets up an richly descriptive imaginary world where inanimate objects come to life (those of you who have read early versions of Stealing Nasreen know about my love for magical realism). I laughed each time a wall-mounted head spoke, or people in photographs shifted over to make room for those just outside the frame, or when knick-knacks sprouted legs and walked away. Earlier in the trip, around the time when we had driven only 20 minutes and Kiran first asked if “we were there yet”, he proposed to his parents that it was time they got a portable DVD player for the vehicle so that he could watch movies. The family discussed the cost of such a device and Kiran earnestly considered the option of getting a paper route to pay for it himself. Shortly after, the first “HP” cassette was popped in the tape player, and all of us listened, our attention focused on Harry’s struggles with his Muggle family, his rescue by a motley crew of wizards, and his icy-cold broomstick getaway. And the 20 hours in the car passed quickly enough.
Last night, I went to Browngirlworld 7, a fabulous evening to celebrate IWD. The evening’s headliner, L.A.-based theatre/hiphop/spoken word artist D’Lo (http://chavez.ucla.edu/DLo/bio.htm) showed an incredible range of talent playing her mother, then a sensitive but guarded boi character from her first play “Ballin With My Bois”, then a straight bio-man leading a 10-week training for other men about how to appreciate women. She guided the audience through serious and funny with the same ease with which she fluidly shifted genders.
Not for the first time, Browngirlworld made me nostalgic for Desh Pardesh, a progressive and political South Asian arts festival that started in the early 90’s. Do you remember Desh? Cameron Bailey wrote in NOW in 1999, “You gotta love Desh. The Tories are back, the 90s are over, yet here it still is — kicking against the pricks and throwing the best party in town. This polymorphous festival baffles the opposition like Tendulkar on the cricket pitch. Diasporic? Yes. Activist? Yes. Sexy? Come here and smell for yourself.” For me, it was a festival that helped me come of age as a proud queer and South Asian woman, a space where I first performed with Saheli Theatre Troupe, and first really noticed and flirted with my girlfriend. Each year, I circled the dates in my calendar with anticipation, sometimes taking time off work so I wouldn’t miss anything as Desh grew from a weekend to a week-long event. Sadly, Desh collapsed in 2001, and it has been sorely missed ever since. Although there has been an uprising of queer South Asian energy in Toronto after 2001 (for example, Rewriting the Script was launched in 2001, groups like Dosti, Mirchi and Salaam formed or got more active), Toronto has never been the same. In my opinion, no one has been able to replicate that excitement and power of Desh. But that sexy, diasporic, activist, grass-roots energy was present, if only for a few hours, last night. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Browngirlworld’s producer and MC, (and an artist in her own right), conjured up a Desh-like magic. She collaborated with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, chased down a lot of local co-sponsors and booked some terrific spoken word, burlesque and drag performers. I think she did an incredible community service for those of us folks who so badly needed (and still do need) a place like Desh.
My girlfriend, her parents, and I have started a tradition of going to Obsidian Theatre (www.obsidian-theatre.com) plays together. After an overstimulating lunch at Richtree (oh, so many choices and the ever present catastrophic risk of ramming into someone else’s unweildy wooden cafeteria tray), we headed over to the Harbourfront Centre Theatre to see The Polished Hoe.
A question on my mind before seeing the play was how Colin Taylor and Alison Sealy Smith would manage to adapt Austin Clarke’s award-winning and lengthy novel to fit within a 90 minute stage production’s constraints (I recently won a copy of the 462 page novel and have been waiting for a good time to launch into it). Could they capture the complexity of such a long story on the stage?
While we walked around Queen’s Quay after the play, our party discussed the exposition-heavy storytelling which was a little hard to enter into (but then, there were other irritations to distract us — the many late-comers who were permitted to stomp their way into the theatre well after it the play had begun, and the noisy candy wrapper crinklers sitting behind us — but that’s another story). I loved the marvelous acting and the “ghosts” from the past but wondered if more drama was needed to enliven the story. The big secret, revealed close to the end of the play, was given so little time that if I’d coughed during it (and the possiblity was there — I have a terrible cold) I might have missed it altogether. And the main character’s intrusive memories seemed to reach a too-simple and easy resolve (I’d explain this further, but don’t want to give away the story).
But in the end I think the play was worth seeing. It left me with many questions long after I’d hugged my in-laws goodbye. When I got home, I took Austin Clarke’s novel off the books-in-waiting shelf and placed it on my bedside table. And well, the play did inspire this week’s blog.