Sunday, 2 October 2016
Imagine what it must have been like to be a person of colour, living in North York back in fall of 1993, watching the pre-Broadway run of Harold Prince’s production of Showboat. You’d see a black ‘stevedore’ in the racist American south happily singing about ‘ol’ man river,’ and a mixed-race woman moaning about her forbidden love for a white man. Well of course you’d be pissed off! As modern day person of colour in Canada, you were being forced to be a witness to ancient images of yourself and your community that simply have no relevance in the present. And it was all the more offensive because there were many racial issues brewing in Toronto’s Jane/Finch community at the time that really demanded attention.
So imagine what I must have felt like sitting in the audience at Soulpepper last week watching a brilliant pair of actors (Jason Cadieux and Damien Atkins) tackle Hosanna — a Canadian masterpiece written in the 70s by Michel Tremblay. I should have enjoyed it — I wanted to enjoy it. But the antique representation of gay men and their ‘plight’ was almost unbearable for me to see.
A masterpiece of magical realism, Hosanna rivals Streetcar Named Desire with the power of its poetic storytelling. But Hosanna is also a play about a homosexual whose tragedy is that he’s just not quite masculine enough.
One can’t blame Tremblay. Hosanna was first produced in 1973, just after gay liberation. Gay liberation was created by gender outcasts - dykes, sex trade workers, drag queens and nelly boys. And it was all about being proud to be a pansy. But soon after, gay men were intimidated by the patriarchy into being afraid of what they had achieved. The Village People were lurking around the corner spreading the notion that gay men could be as masculine as construction workers, cowboys and cops. Then came the 80s gay clones in their plaid shirts, workbooks and moustaches. Tremblay was writing in the shadow of a particularly oppressive paradigm that consumed the gay community in the late 70s. Some gays said simply -- and quite rightly -- that it's okay for gay men to be masculine. But others decreed that we shouldn’t be feminine anymore.
In the meantime our wider culture broached some pretty major theoretical changes that moved us in opposite direction. Judith Butler discovered that gender is an illusion, stating that it’s okay for men to be feminine and women to be masculine. And more recently, we’ve learned from the transgender community that the sexual equipment you are born with doesn’t necessarily define who you are.
So at the end of Hosanna — when Claude stands before us naked, repeating over and over again ‘I’m a man, I’m a man, I’m a man’ — I know I’m supposed to feel triumphant. But I just can’t. I just feel sad, hurt or worse yet — deeply wounded for gender outlaws everywhere.
Because the fact that Hosanna has a penis doesn’t mean he can’t wear a dress.
Or am I wrong?