It’s a zone where you’re churning out the best of what your creative being has to offer, unapologetically your way. Playwright, writer and performer Fatuma Adar is presently in that zone. Her Dora award-winning semi-autobiographical play Dixon Road was a showstopper musical and garnered praise from critics and show attendees. She is now prepping her return to the stage with an introspective look at the perception of Black excellence in her one-woman show, She’s Not Special.
While working on Dixon Road, Adar felt the pressures of perfectionism and representation weigh heavy on her back. The constant barrage of flawlessness under the guise of Black excellence was a lot to carry. “I felt like I had this responsibility of launching this all-Black musical and that there was no room for failure. Interestingly enough, you really need to be familiar with failure to be an artist (laughs). So it felt like there was no room to give,” said Adar.
Around the summer of 2019, Adar was working through her feelings, and as timing would have it, a friend reached out to offer a vacant spot at Bad Dog Theatre. In the process of wondering who her work was for, the acrobatics that marginalized artists have to endure to be received by creative gatekeepers, and the traumas we dig into in order to get opportunities on stage, Adar’s voice for She’s Not Special came to life.
“I said, sure, how long is the slot? It was like an hour. I knew I could come up with an hour of stupid songs with the goal of having no goal. With the hopes of an opportunity for you to try not to feel judged as an artist or feel like you have to bear the weight of representation. You can just be so singularly yourself. Because I think with Black excellence, in particular, as I say in the show, there's praise for winning a race that we all know is crooked to begin with. So it's almost like, congratulations because we didn't expect you to make it this far. And good on you for making change and breaking all that ground.”
“And then you're like, where am I in that story for you? As an artist singularly and how in a way that kind of sweeps our individuality under these identities that, I feel, becomes more about checking boxes for them than what your individual voice is. I was having a really hard time with ‘what is Fatima's voice.’ So I had the opportunity with this one-hour random special that I invited some people to write a bunch of silly comedy songs about why I feel like I shouldn't necessarily be the poster child for all-knowing wisdom of inclusivity and change and how, like anybody else, I'm figuring out what it is that I'm trying to say with my work,” says Adar”
Imagine hearing mediocrity and Black excellence uttered in the same breath. No one would even dare. Until now, as we start to unravel the contradiction and heaviness of it all. Did we anticipate that Black excellence would carry a stigma of sorts? When you start to strip away the layers, it’s easy to see where the pressures, the noise and everything that comes along with it are becoming easier to decipher. Over the years, being the first Black man or woman to win or place at so and so has become tiring. Why can’t we simply be celebrated for our artistic merit? Adar agrees that it’s a slippery slope.
“I mean, it's one thing where I should feel good about that. I did something, and it was received well. But then, the praise for being the first Black thing. That part doesn't feel like I won anything. It felt like only now you started including us. It doesn't make me think that my work is any more revolutionary. It just means that you've now started paying attention. For my first Dora Award and being the first Somali artist to win, I was like, yikes. It didn't feel like an actual win if that makes sense. The actual word for writing was a win. But the first Somali artist to win it, that part didn't feel like a win because, in a lot of ways, it made me feel a little lonely, if I'm being honest,” says Adar.
There are so many layers to dissect. But all in all, Adar is quite content being in the in-between. She has learned to embrace being in the realm of mediocrity and how ‘beautifully vast and spacious the free world of mediocrity is.’ It’s an open field of opportunities, it’s spacious, it’s vast, it’s freedom. A word whose context means so much to our people. Because, really, what is perfectionism? And by whose standards? Also, who wants to go toe to toe with imposter syndrome when it comes knocking? Inquiring minds want and need to know.
“I was on TikTok the other day, and I felt like the universe kept trying to hammer this message home because I have an issue with perfectionism. It's definite, it's like a full-on disease. And I think that's the thing that keeps me from finishing or starting a project or reaching out to people for help. It’s this idea of I need to sound or feel perfect, and I need to know what I'm doing. This TikTok, in particular, was talking about how perfectionism is a tool of white supremacy and how it comes from white supremacy because what are the standards as to what is perfect?”
“They have been set before us by other people who are not us, who do not have our brains, and who do not have our lived experiences. So when you are being excellent, I wonder if it's just blackness within the umbrella of what white supremacy considers excellent. Is it a capitalistic view? Who gets to say that you're excellent in order for you to be? Because I think that there is Black excellence within the community in a lot of ways where we cheer each other on. But then I feel like, what are we really saying about this?” says Adar.
Adar clearly has a lot to say about the matter, and She’s Not Special will give her the platform to express her thoughts exactly the way she intends to—with commentary and a bold comedic twist. Let’s not forget to mention Adar is full-on excited about Black Out Night taking place on May 26th. A night where she will be recording all of the play and audience antics for a potential comedy album. From a comedy pilot to the Fringe Festival, then a digital run, and now front and centre on stage, She’s Not Special is ready to flourish in the spotlight on Adar’s terms.
“It's not about greatness at that point. It's about how I want to express myself and how I want to create. I'm also hoping that because we're in such a wave of incredible, Black artists and artists of marginalized backgrounds finally getting to speak, we also understand that we don't have to write the identity play in order to be successful.”
She's Not Special is co-presented by Nightwood Theatre and Tarragon Theatre, and runs May 24-28, 2023 at Tarragon Theatre.