by Lynn on September 2, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Memorial Hall, Blyth, Ont. Produced by the Blyth Festival. Runs until Sept. 9, 2023.

Written and directed by Andrew Moodie

Set and lighting by Steve Lucas

Costumes by Tamara Marie Kucheran

Sound by Lyon Smith

Cast: Peter N. Bailey

Matthew G. Brown

Richard Alan Campbell

Xuan Fraser

Michael Pollard

 Alicia Richardson

Nawa Nicole Simon

The Story. The Real McCoy by Andrew Moodieis based on the life of Elijah McCoy who was born to runaway American slaves who escaped to Canada, to Colchester, Upper Canada. Elijah McCoy was curious from a young age, concerned about how things worked and were put together. A teacher encouraged Elijah and his family to let him follow his dream to be an engineer by accepting a scholarship to study Engineering at 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. The trains had to be stopped every 10 minutes to lubricate the engine. This was very inefficient so Elijah invented a lubricating cup that would keep the trains running and lubricated at the same time, without stopping on the voyage. While he took out a patent on his invention, he was not able to get the recognition due him because he was Black.

Elijah McCoy’s story is one of curiosity, accomplishment, difficulty and even sorrow. Andrew Moodie illuminates McCoy’s life with a blend of fact and fiction.

The Production. Steve Lucas has designed a simple set of boxes that represent many locations. Andrew Moodie also directs the play. He uses the space well and establishes the relationships of characters with efficiency and focus. As Young Elijah, Matthew G. Brown exudes a wide-eyed curiosity about how things work and fit together. When his loving and supportive father, George, (Xuan Fraser), gives Elijah a puzzle toy, Matthew G. Brown tries to fit it together, almost forcing pieces to fit. His father urges him not to force them—Xuan Fraser as George, is patient, supportive and loving to his son. Then Elijah realizes that one of the pieces is missing—his father deliberately held it back, not through meanness, but to see how Elijah figures out the problem. It’s a kindness that informs Elijah’s life.

Overseeing all of what is unfolding on stage, is the Elijah McCoy (Peter N. Bailey) as an adult. Peter N. Bailey is dressed in a three-piece suit and tie. He’s courtly, assured but not in an ostentatious way, and confident enough to know how to solve problems without being distracted by those jealous bullies of which he is surrounded.

Elijah had to contend with racism his whole life. Playwright Andrew Moodie writes these scenes with a gentle, delicate hand. The racism Elijah endures is subtle, which is perhaps hard to imagine in those early years. One might have expected more hard-hitting racism, but this gentler depiction is how Andrew Moodie presents it. Interestingly, Moodie directs the two white actors—Michael Pollard and Richard Alan Campbell—playing various white characters, to act in a broad, almost cartoonish way. Those actors playing Black characters (Young Elijah (Matthew G. Brown), Older Elijah (Peter N. Bailey), Elijah’s father George (Xuan Fraser), Elijah’s mother and others (Nawa Nicole Simon), and Mary Eleanora Delaney and others (Alicia Richardson), all present their characters as multi-faceted, with dignity, compassion and confidence.   

Comment. Playwright Andrew Moodie is being cheeky when he entitles his play The Real McCoy, as if Elijah McCoy, engineer-inventor extraordinaire is the source of that phrase. He may be, Andrew Moodie, teasing us here.  What is not in question is Elijah McCoy’s importance to the world of invention, and not just the lubricating cup—for purposes of this play, that lubricating cup is the focus.  I’m glad of Andrew Moodie’s play and the introduction of Elijah McCoy, an extraordinary inventor.

The Blyth Festival presents:

Plays until September 9, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (1 intermission).

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