by Lynn on February 5, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Andrew Kushnir

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Designed by Jung-Hye Kim

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound design by Debashis Sinha

Starring: Sarah Afful

Michael Blake

Lisa Codrington

Andrew Kushnir

Chy Spain

Richard Ausar Stewart

A show about identity and self that poses provocative questions and leaves you lots to think about.

The Story. Actor/writer Andrew Kushnir shared a dressing room with an actor who was black, gay and from Jamaica. During the run of the play they talked about many things especially being gay and being ostracized for it. The experiences that Kushnir’s  friend had in Jamaica, being bullied and threatened because he was black and gay, were the same experiences Kushnir felt when he was in Ukraine. Kushnir is white, gay, Canadian, but with Ukrainian heritage.  His friend quietly said that their experiences were definitely not the same. At all.

Kushnir was stopped in his tracks by his friend’s quiet conviction that he, Kushnir, could not really understand his friend’s experiences as a gay, black man in Jamaica.  Kushnir decided to go to Jamaica and investigate for himself what it’s like to be gay there. He interviewed a cross section of gay men and women to learn about their experiences. Skin colour defines them. History informs them—slavery etc.

The Production. Andrew Kushnir has taken the interviews he conducted from 2010-2014 and recreated the monologues verbatim into the theatre piece Small Axe. This is his second verbatim theatre for Project Humanity, for which he is the creative director. His first verbatim play was The Middle Place about youth in a kind of settlement home.

Kushnir’s sensitivity with the material is matched by his equally gifted director, Alan Dilworth. For Small Axe, six actors stand on scaffolding, above the stage. Initially their backs are to us, but turn and walk forward as they give their monologues. Kushnir sits in a chair on the stage below, facing the audience, his back is to the six speakers. He holds a microphone and asks questions and offers dialogue to the participants above. He listens carefully, intently, sometimes knitting his eyebrows at what he is hearing, but he is always engaged. We are never distanced from what is happening because the interviewees are above the stage and Kushnir is sitting below on the stage. Dilworth has staged/directed the piece so that we are always engaged with both speakers and listener.

For some of the performance, they come down from their scaffolding and face him. The interviewees are as respectful and polite when talking to Kushnir directly.   When they point out the particular kind of violence that has been aimed at them they don’t tell him with bitterness towards him, but it is pointed. At one point they tell him to “Take care of your own shit.”  Kushnir takes them seriously.

He races to each scaffold—there are several—unlocks the brake; violently shakes and moves them as if trying to dismantle or destroy them. I must confess, I find this bit of business mystifying. I didn’t know what it signifies. Are the interviewees telling him to mind his own business? I don’t get that sense. I don’t understand the intense running from scaffold to scaffold, or the furious attempt to move/dislodge them.

At the end of the performance, Kushnir said he learned from all the interviews and in future would listen harder.

Comment.  I love the mystery of the title of the piece, Small Axe. What does that mean? Perhaps it’s a play on the way a Jamaican (or any West Indian?) says “ask.” The play is perhaps suggesting that it’s a small request to consider the difference between a white gay man’s experiences and a black gay man’s experiences.

I was grateful to see Small Axe, albeit at the very end of the run. The theatre invited me to see the show and post even if the post would be after it closed. There certainly is lots to think about and a lot of presumptions. Kushnir, a white man, is fair minded and looks past his friend’s skin colour and, I assume, treats him fairly, with due consideration and respect. Kushnier’s friend and the people of colour he interviewed regard their skin colour as paramount. It is who they are. One wonders then is a meeting of the minds possible? The fact that Kushnir was curious enough to explore the comment that his homophobic experience as a white gay man was definitely not the same as a black gay man’s experience of his friend, suggests that there could be a meeting of minds.

Considering all the comments and thoughts expressed in Small Axe, I found Kushnir’s last statement—he would listen harder—odd. Surely after all he was told by his interviewees, the line should have been that he would pause first in speaking before equating his experiences with that of his friend’s. The whole impetus of the play was because Kushnir said his homophobic experience was the same as his friend’s. He has realized that statement is not true. I would think the result would be he would pause and think before he said that again.

Before the play there was a huge distance between attitudes and thinking between Kushnir, a white, gay man and his black gay friend. Is it possible to bridge that gap? I think so as long as playwrights like Andrew Kushnir are curious to explore his assumptions, and audiences are open-minded enough to hear what he and others have to say about them.

A co-production between the Theatre Centre and Project Humanity.

First performance: Jan. 17, 2015

My first chance to see it: Jan. 31, 2015

Closed: Feb. 1, 2015

Cast: 6: 4 men, 2 women.

Running Time:  90 minutes.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eduard Literate February 5, 2015 at 4:17 pm

“If you are the big tree we are the small axe, ready to cut you down.”

– Bob Marley


2 Eduard Literate February 5, 2015 at 4:43 pm

I think my first comment requires a little more substance to be at all helpful here, because I re-read your comment about the title and am a bit astounded.

First, did you really write “[p]erhaps it’s a play on the way a Jamaican (or any West Indian?) says “ask.”? This piece of work is about EXACTLY that kind of speaking before understanding coupled with some very sloppy cultural misappropriation/bias.

The lyrics to the entire song may help you with your “mystery”. It’s based on a proverb and made popular by Bob Marley’s song “Small Axe”. Perhaps listening harder AND pausing will help next time.

Why boasteth thyself, oh, evil men.
Playing smart and not being clever, oh no.
I say, you’re working iniquity,
To achieve vanity yeah. (if a-so a-so)
But the goodness, of Jah Jah,
I-dureth I-ever.

If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.
Sharpened to cut you down, (well sharp)
Ready to cut you down. Oh, yeah.

These are the words, of my master,
Keep on tellin’ me, oh oh.
No weak heart shall prosper,
Oh no they can’t, hey!
And whosoever diggeth a pit, Lord,
Shall fall in it, shall fall in it.
Whosoever diggeth a pit,
Shall bury in it, shall bury in it.

If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.
Sharpened to cut you down,
Ready to cut you down.


And whosoever diggeth a pit,
Shall fall in it, shall fall in it.
(Hey!) Whosoever diggeth a pit,
Shall bury in it. (shall bury in it)

If you are the big tree, we have the small axe.
Ready to cut you down, (well sharp)
Sharpened to cut you down.

If you are the big tree, we are the small axe.
Ready to cut you down, (well sharp)
Sharpened to cut you down.