TORONTO — From the time Obsidian Theatre artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu was appointed to her position in January 2020 to when she started it in July, the world changed dramatically.
The COVID-19 pandemic raged alongside a racial reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., and Tindyebwa Otu longed to do a communal project that had the Black gaze at its centre and "was unapologetically Black — like a radical offering in these unprecedented times that we were in."
"With no end to the pandemic in sight, I'd gone into this period of isolation like everybody else, and mourning privately the murder of Black people at the hands of police, and had no access to theatre or community," Tindyebwa Otu said in an interview.
"I started thinking a lot about Black futures, trying to imagine what the future of Black people in this country and on this planet would look like, in light of everything that we were experiencing. I was wondering how other Black artists in the country were doing, especially when, around the world, the gaze of institutions and individuals and even politicians had turned sharply towards them. And I was wondering how I could support Black artists in an institutional capacity."
Tindyebwa Otu then conceived "21 Black Futures," a CBC Gem anthology series of short, filmed stage monodramas from CBC Arts and Obsidian Theatre. The first seven videos from the series launched last Friday, the next seven will be available to stream this Friday, and the final seven land Feb. 26.
Tindyebwa Otu commissioned the pieces from 21 Black playwrights of varying generations across the country. Each piece has a different Black director and performer and was shot onstage under COVID-19 protocols at Meridian Hall in Toronto.
The "21" represents both the year of launch and also the anniversary of Obsidian, a Toronto theatre that focuses primarily on the works of acclaimed Black playwrights.
The monodramas all respond to the question: "What is the future of Blackness?"
"I was interested in new stories about imagined Black futures to counter the messaging that was suddenly everywhere about us, but not from us," says Tindyebwa Otu. "And I was interested in new words, in new language and in what Black writers and thinkers across this country had to say about our future."
She wanted the writers "to be unapologetic in what they we're bringing to the table, and to prioritize the Black gaze in who they were writing for and why they were writing and what they have to say."
Among the projects is "The Death News," which is set in a near-future world in which premature Black death is an inevitability. CBC host Amanda Parris wrote the story and Charles Officer directed.
Toronto actor Lovell Adams-Gray stars as two characters: host of a TV show that airs pre-recorded obituaries done by the very people who died, and a young man preparing to make his own segment.
Parris says the concept is inspired by a real TV and radio broadcast in Grenada, the Caribbean island where her family is from, in which a host gives quick information on who died and funeral details.
"When I first heard about it when I was a teenager and I was there, I was like, 'What kind of morbid, horrible, depressing thing is this?' But in Grenada, it's not seen as such," Parris said, noting it's often seen as a chance to reminisce about those who died.
"My grandmother would be like, 'Oh my gosh, shhh, the death news is on. I've got to find out who died,' and everyone would sit around and they'd watch."
Parris she says imagined her project "as a tool of resistance to a mainstream media that historically has failed to tell the stories of Black folks with an adequate degree of nuance, integrity, sacredness, and not just in the form of death, but even about Hollywood stories of Black folks — in all cases."
"The idea of 'The Death News' is that we reclaim our stories, and that to me is very powerful," she adds.
Parris, who was pregnant while writing the piece, even penned her own obituary to get into the headspace of the main character.
"To do that while pregnant, it's probably not a good idea, and during a pandemic. I wouldn't recommend it," Parris said with a laugh. "And I didn't finish it. I started it, but it was just too much."
But it was interesting thinking about how one would craft their own narrative and how they would want people to remember them, she added.
"And then it made me think about all the ways that we don't get to do that, and all the things that are left unsaid, which is a universal thing," said Parris. "But then when it comes to Black folks and just the rate of death in so many different avenues of life — whether we're talking about health and all the new rising numbers, and stats around everything that's happening in the pandemic, or talking about violence in the States — it just became so emotional."
Tindyebwa Otu says she wants the pieces to feed an ongoing conversation, and give hope and healing — and not just during Black History Month.
"Just keep fully opening up the perspective that the idea of a Black future is so rich and so diverse and so complex. And it's not just a one size fits all; there are many angles of the conversation that needs to be had. And this is just a sliver of that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2021.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press