by Lynn on August 13, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At 4th Line Theatre, Millbrook, Ont. Written by Andrew Moodie. Directed by Kim Blackwell. Designed by Julie Tribe. Musical direction and composition by Justin Hiscox. Choreography by Monica Dottor. Starring: Beau Dixon, Carson Durven, Matt Gilbert, Kallie Milleman, Andrew Moodie, Melanee Murray and Robert Winslow.

Continues until August 24.

The Real McCoy by Andrew Moodie is based on the life of Elijah McCoy who was born to former slaves who escaped to Canada, to Colchester, Upper Canada. Moodie shows McCoy to be curious from a young age concerning how things worked and were put together. He was encouraged to follow his dream of studying and was able to earn an Engineering degree from Edinburgh University.

When he graduated he found work in Michigan, but because he was black plum jobs were not available to him.  He got a job on the railroad helping to lubricate the trains on their voyage. In his spare time he created inventions (a portable ironing board, a lawn sprinkler). The most famous was a lubricating cup that would keep the trains running and lubricated at the same time, without stopping on the voyage. At the time he was not able to get the recognition due him because he was black.

He married twice but both marriages ended tragically. He was driving with his second wife in their car when they were in a horrific accident. His wife was killed and it left him suffering with headaches from then on. He died of dementia in 1929.

The Real McCoy had its world premiere in 2006 in Toronto at the Factory Theatre. When I reviewed it then for CBC radio, I called the play superficial in that Moodie didn’t go deep into characterization etc. But I was grateful to Moodie for introducing us to this incredibly inventive man.

While it is heartening that Moodie does write about serious subjects (race relations; racial profiling) I have found his handling of these weighty subjects is rather slight. He presents a problem and a little while later neatly solves the problem. There is little angst.

And there is the matter of the phrase “The Real McCoy.” Some people think the phrase came from the self-lubricating cup and that when people were building their locomotives, they wanted the real McCoy Lubricating Cup.

In his coy way Moodie doesn’t ever suggest that the phrase came from Elijah McCoy. In a subtle way he leaves that to us.

While Andrew Moodie says in his program note that he didn’t want just to present facts about McCoy’s life (the facts seem to be contradictory in any case); he wanted to present something deeper. Yet he never says what that something deeper is.

When Elijah McCoy does encounter racism, it’s first in Michigan when he can’t get an engineering job. He has to take a more menial job because he’s black. Employers don’t believe he studied in Edinburgh until he gives them proper proof. He is cheated of royalties for one of his inventions. But Moodie seems to handle such incidents with gentle gloves. We don’t get that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. McCoy does experience a practical joke when he first appears in Edinburgh when two Scots students send him to the wrong building. It’s not clear if it’s because McCoy is black or because those two men were just jokers.

But this new production of The Real McCoy that I saw this past weekend at the 4th Line Theatre, in the wonderful setting of the barn yard, has given me a new appreciation of Moody’s play.

Moodie writes elegant and funny dialogue for Elijah, his family and friends. Elijah is patient, courtly, and classy. He does not rise to baiting, nor does he react vindictively. Moodie has written a character who is always thinking, pondering, questioning and never missing an opportunity to create something that will make life easier.  From every mistake and problem that looks impossible, McCoy lucks onto the solution from some simple source.

His characters are all decent in one way or another. McCoy is not a man with a chip on his shoulder. He is a man who is respectful, shy and loving. When Elijah writes to his father of the imperfection of the world that God has created, Moodie creates a riff that is a thing of beauty. One does get riled at the scene in which McCoy is carrying his dying wife to the first hospital he knows and is turned away because it’s for whites only.

Moodie has done his homework in to the world of McCoy with the theories of dynamics, heat conduction and the creation of steam to solving problems. Explanations of how things work are simple, clear and impressive.

Director Kim Blackwell has done a masterful job of using the barn yard and barn itself to create McCoy’s rough and tumble world. There is a beautiful use of the space with many vivid images. Sending a letter from Father to son and back is done with characters with gliding arms holding the letter, passing it to another character until McCoy or his father have them. There is a ritualistic cleansing when a character dies. And she knows full well how to establish relationships between characters and how to shape a scene so that it goes conveys the point.

The cast is very strong, and again, Blackwell gets good performances from them. As Elijah, Beau Dixon is tall, bearded, bald and formidable in a quiet way. Dixon shows McCoy’s dignity and enthusiasm for the search for ‘the answer.’ As the Young Elijah McCoy, Andrew Moodie is animated and lively. As Manny Hubbard and various other roles, Melanee Murray has a facility with accents; is matter of fact; has perfect timing and imbues her characters with a grace and yet gentle toughness.

Once again, I was glad to ‘re-meet’ and learn new things about Elijah McCoy through the play, and get a better appreciation of its author, Andrew Moodie . Check out this strong production while it lasts.

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