Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Review: Blackberry is a Call to Action

Who: Red Betty Theatre
What: Blackberry
Where: Carter Park (32 Stinson Avenue)
When: August 4-21, 2022
Tickets: $15 – $50; Pay-what-you-can on Tuesdays
To Buy Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/blackberry-tickets-380526303417

“What kind of world do you want to live in?” the young actors of Blackberry ask during their land acknowledgement. A similar statement arises close to the end of the performance, and it feels like more than coincidence that the question has taken on new meaning.

Blackberry is the story of four teenagers whose lives are dramatically changed in the course of a single event. The almost two-hour long piece runs at Corktown’s Carter Park in a Red Betty Theatre production. Written by Red Betty founder and Artistic Director Radha S. Menon, Blackberry examines systemic racism and its impact on IBPOC youth. 

The pacing of Blackberry doesn’t provide it with an arc, exactly; while there is a climatic point, the ending provides no way out- it spirals, much in the same way that much of our post-pandemic world has seemed to. 

More than half of the production is dedicated to establishing the relationships between the four main characters, so that by the time the climax and subsequent revelations occur, it feels predictable. Following these events, the production picks up pace, and not as much character development is explored as openly; although this is when the characters perform their greatest evolution. Anger evolves into disappointment and vice versa; interrogation becomes introspection and political messaging and personal revelations- both of which are unnerving- intertwine. 

There’s something disarming about the four young performers who lead the production of Blackberry and put their vulnerability on display. The performances of Jason Chung, Molly Mutch, Rylan Bomberry and Paul Smith are easily the greatest successes of Blackberry. Both as individuals and as a collective, the four performers bring the story and the characters to life and despite the at-times disheartening message of the show, offer the greatest hope for the future.  

Equally important to the physical performances is the physical setting, and Carter Park serves as an equally valuable performer in this regard, where a small corner of the park and the protection of a wall of trees helps to both focus sound and act as a natural backdrop. Scenography Designer César El Hayeck uses a minimal set to create the teens’ hideaway from the world where Blackberry takes place. Lighting enhances these elements as-needed; but not always according to the elements. In an outdoor performance and with the sun setting earlier and earlier during the run, additional lighting will be needed to ensure the actors can be seen. 

In the same way that lighting will likely evolve during the course of the show’s run, personal amplification devices will also likely evolve, as spoken words were not consistently level or heard outdoors. But there are beautiful elements in Sound Designer Christopher-Elizabeth’s creation that are easy to overlook. The well-timed effects and the constant babbling river nearby are like magic tricks- offering transportation to this world at just the right moments. 

While the performances of Chung, Mutch, Bomberry and Smith are extraordinary, the world that their characters live in and represent is one that is calling for change. With the relentless stream of stories of inequity and suffering faced by numerous groups of people in Canada- whether it be for skin colour, sexuality, gender or something else- Blackberry serves as a timely reminder of the importance of finding, and fighting for, hope in a world where division through inequity reigns.

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