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Tawiah Ben M'Carthy in Obaaberima.

Jeremy Mimnagh

  • Title: Obaaberima
  • Written and performed by: Tawiah Ben M’Carthy
  • Genre: Solo show
  • Director: Evalyn Parry
  • Company: Buddies in Bad Times
  • Venue: Buddies in Bad Times
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Dec. 9 

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Buddies in Bad Times has been in the news lately for losing friends in what should be good times – a celebratory 40th-anniversary season.

Earlier this month, the venerable Toronto queer theatre’s artistic director, Evalyn Parry, replaced a reading of a 1986 play by co-founder Sky Gilbert with a public discussion after he penned a poem on his blog the theatre deemed “highly problematic.” In response, Gilbert announced this week that he was pulling a workshop of his new opera from the theatre’s season. There’s more to come, surely.

It’d be a shame if this push-and-pull and the public debate around it overshadowed the full production now being revived at Buddies: Obaaberima, which won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best production of a play in 2013. It explores, artfully, humanistically, complex questions about gender and identity that too often become polarizing off the stage.

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I missed Tawiah Ben M’Carthy’s captivating solo show in its premiere, and again on its subsequent Canadian tour, so I feel lucky to have another opportunity to meet the fascinating character at the centre of it.

From prison, one day before he is be released from a sentence served for assault, Agyeman – the name the character initially uses in the play – wants to tell us the story of how he went from his home country, Ghana, to a cell in Canada. He tells us this will be the prelude to a ceremony from his culture known as an “out-dooring.”

“Where I come from, when a child is a born, they are kept indoors for no less than seven days,” he says. “If that child makes it through the first week, then the beginning of their life is marked by a ceremony called ‘out-dooring’: a naming ceremony at which the child is brought out of the house, is introduced to family, friends and the community.”

Growing up in Ghana, Agyeman, a feminine boy who likes to put on his mother’s high heels when she is out of the house, is given his second name by a girl at school: “Obaaberima,” a portmanteau of “obaa” (woman) and “oberima” (man) meant to be insulting.

After being pushed to the ground one day by this bully in a village street, Agyeman is defended by a kindly tailor named Opayin – whose shop becomes a refuge for him, and where he can safely try on all the dresses he likes.

Obaaberima explores complex questions about gender and identity that too often become polarizing off the stage.

Jeremy Mimnagh

It’s hanging around Opayin that Agyeman discovers a female alter-ego named Sibongile inside of himself. He also, at age 13, begins a secret sexual relationship with the adult man – but only as Sibongile. (The character avoids labelling this relationship, which goes on for years.)

When he is 16, Agyeman meets a boy named Nana Osei who has moved back to Ghana from abroad – and the two quickly bond over their shared love of Boyz II Men. After that relationship turns romantic, however, Agyeman finds himself torn between between the tailor and the teenager – between the obaa he is with one; and the oberima he is with the other.

In the second half of Obaaberima, Agyeman moves to Canada to study – and he again ends up living a double life, engaged to a Christian woman from Ghana (who opposes expat attempts to decriminalize homosexual acts back home), while at the same time moving in with a gay Canadian man who declares his desire to marry him.

Eventually, all the lives of Agyeman, all of his names – from home and abroad – collide, with tragic consequences in a climax that feels a little forced. The journey there is always compelling, however.

In some ways, Obaaberima is a very straightforward coming-of-age show about a character discovering who they are, framed from the perspective a culture not often seen on Canadian stages.

But M’Carthy makes his main character a multi-layered one who interrogates the very idea of self-identification – at least as one thing or another. The naming ceremony he enacts for us is also about the limitations of names – and, in this song of himself, he, like Walt Whitman, finds he contains multitudes.

The direction by Parry is clear and effective. Without ever changing out of his orange jumpsuit, M’Carthy creates a dozen characters by shape-shifting his physicality; he glides marvellously, with the assurance of a dancer, through rectangles of light carefully carved out on the stage floor by lighting designer Michelle Ramsay, boxes his personae finds themselves trapped inside of like the perceptions of others.

Camellia Koo’s set shows us the bars of Agyeman’s cell as a backdrop and, through the bars of a cell above, percussionist Kobèna Aquaa-Harrison provides the soundscape for his journey with African instruments. While I saw the first preview of this remount, Obaaberima and its star already was moving with complete confidence.

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