In Fairview, an upper-middle-class African American family prepares a birthday dinner for Grandma, but everything is not what it seems in this radical examination of race, power, and surveillance.
Tawiah, who was also this year's ByBlacks People's Choice Award Winner in the best director category, discussed his career, Fairview, and his work as a Ghanaian-born theatre creator operating at the intersections of his Ghanaian and Canadian identity.
How were you able to carve a path for yourself within Canadian theatre?
It was challenging. When I got out of school, I had an accent and I’m Black, so I wasn't getting jobs. During that time, I often thought of giving up since I couldn't make a living. My breakthrough was deciding to create work for myself. If there was no character I could play, then I was going to start creating those stories. That was the beginning of The Kente Cloth, Obaaberima, Black Boys, and Maanomaa, which was me actively creating space for myself. Fortunately, I was surrounded by people and mentors who believed in my capabilities.
Since I live within the intersection of being Ghanaian and Canadian, I bring my culture and all of who I am to the work. For example, my first show, The Kente Cloth, has a character speaking Twi, and Obaaberima the very title of the play, most people couldn't even pronounce. Most Canadians live in a place of intersection and are part of multiple cultures. So, to tell a story that only sits within one culture is not actually true of Canadian identity. I always think: how do we actually put into practice creating work that everyone sees themselves in? That means shifting from what we know and expanding to make room for all these others.
To say too much about the play would be to spoil the experience, but how has your body of work prepared you for tackling Fairview?
I really don't think anything quite prepared me for this. Because the play is a conversation around race - that much I can say – and around the consumption of art and theatre in relation to race, I think growing up in Ghana and being here, as an African Black body, in Canada, enables me to hold that conversation. Being othered and someone who's always going through the challenges of what it means to be Black in Canada, my experience of navigating my racial identity within the industry, the community, within this country, affords me space to really investigate what’s happening within the play. Also, tackling shows like Death and the King’s Horseman at Stratford was in some way a necessary step towards Fairview.
Part of my training as a director was being mentored by Philip Akin through Obsidian’s mentorship program. I was also mentored by Brendan Healy, here at Canadian Stage and was part of their RBC Emerging Artist Program as a director. So having the opportunity to come here and direct a show around this particular conversation with these two organizations feels like a continuation of a circle - working with them is such a gift.
Did you adapt the play in any way to the Canadian context?
I'm doing the play as is. It’s still a Black American family. Most Canadians think that America is a racist country, and not so much Canada. But we buy into everything that Americans do; we follow the star system, consume their art, to some extent, even more than our own. American popular culture is something that we chase after. There's something around us mimicking that culture, that is quite relevant to this production, and relates to African Canadians and how we talk about race.
Without giving too much away, there’s a particular connection to Black sitcoms. Growing up in Ghana, I watched Black sitcoms, which also shaped my perspective. So, watching a story about an upper-middle-class, Black family is something we were all introduced to through American pop culture. It was important for me to hold on to that interpretation because I think that's where the conversation starts - how we consume Black art, Black theatre, and Black stories. Certain stories are intended to move in a certain way, and we need to hold true to what the playwright is doing. There was intentionality in the way Jackie has written the story and I wanted to hold on to that integrity because I strongly believe in what she’s doing with the play. I think those who witness it will know that there's something quite intentional around the conversation that's happening.
How did you take your cast through the process of mounting Fairview and how did you try to keep them safe?
I think it's always important to create an ensemble before you actually go to the work. In my practice, we spend time going through the story, the action of the play, and knowing our role in actually achieving that. So that it becomes less about the actors and their feelings about the work, and more about what the story is doing. We spent some time getting to know each other as an ensemble. Especially with this piece, it's important to make sure that the artists, including the designers, and those who are talking about the play outside of the rehearsal room, are all on the same page about what the action is. It's easy to create a divide, particularly with a story like this. We created a community agreement as to how we were to work and have regular check-ins at the start and end of the day. As an ensemble we share whatever we're struggling with so that we can find ways to navigate together. We brought in an active listener, whom the actors can talk to about the personal challenge of crafting their character and who will remind them of the self-care that's needed to be able to go into the work on a daily basis. This is so that my focus as a director can stay on the work to hold the space for everyone else in the room.
What’s exciting about bringing Fairview to Canadian audiences for the first time?
I think the style of theatre itself is exciting to me. There's a deliberate, chaotic conversation within the play that invites the full commitment and attention of the audience. I like to create experiences, so it's a joy to have my audience be an active part of the story and the way the show engages or challenges the audience is exciting. If you're coming to the show just to be a spectator or be entertained, you're going to find yourself a bit more immersed in the show than you were planning on.
I also enjoy that the play is full of surprises. The turns and curves of the story; the things that happen are unexpected. Since Canadians are not big fans of conflict, I'm excited to see how a Canadian audience interacts with the discomfort in the play. I hope it brings up an active consideration of our own understanding of race in Canada.
What would you tell someone going to see the show?
Every one of us is one of the characters on the stage. Be patient; be kind to yourself. There is a level of vulnerability that's required to interact with the play, so allow yourself the space for that. This play requires all your senses, for you to listen actively and watch attentively what occurs. It's an invitation into a conversation. Be ready to be part of that.
You also have Maanomaa, My Brother coming up in April. How did that piece come about?
Maanomaa is a piece that myself and my colleague and collective partner, Brad Cook, started working on in 2016. We did our first workshop presentation and then, took a break from it to pursue our professional careers and learn more. For me, it's a combination of my practice as an artist, and what myself and Brad envision the possibility of theatre to be. The show combines movements and texts, employs different languages, and is actually set in Ghana.
It's a story about two childhood friends who grew up in Ghana, one is Black and the other is white. They have a life-changing event that separates them, and years later another event brings them together. They have to deal with things of the past that they couldn't deal with as kids. It's also a conversation around my relationship with Ghana, my family, friends, and about growing from a young boy into a man, especially here in Canada, and what that means.