Fatuma Adar is thrilled to be offering a Black Out night for “She’s Not Special,” her upcoming show with music opening next week for a five-night run at the Tarragon Mainspace Theatre.
In fact, she’s so excited about the special May 26 performance aimed at Black audiences that she’s recording that night for comedy album posterity.
It’s especially important after a similar Black Out night last winter during the National Arts Centre’s run of Aleshea Harris’s acclaimed play “Is God Is” resulted in controversy.
When conservative voices like Jonathan Kay and Jordan Peterson criticized the single night as exclusionary and “racially segregated” (even though the idea of Black Out nights originated in 2019 at Jeremy O. Harris’s acclaimed Broadway production “Slave Play”), right-wing American media picked up the story — a reaction that made Adar, the writer/composer of last year’s Dora Award-winning musical “Dixon Road,” roll her eyes.
“First of all, these people (who criticized Black Out nights) don’t go to the theatre,” said Adar. “The times when I’ve felt most segregated have been when I’m at a show and nobody looks like me. Black Out nights are a great time to not think about being policed or watched.
“I didn’t have a lot of access to theatre growing up,” she continued. “I was taken to movie theatres and felt comfortable there. But I didn’t know about theatre. There are so many questions around it. Am I supposed to be here? Do I need to mind my Ps and Qs? We’re developing more diverse work onstage, but there hasn’t been as much focus on developing diversity in the audience. And I think Black Out nights help with that. They’re a celebration.”
Adar, who released a film version of “She’s Not Special” directed by Graham Isador at 2022’s Next Stage Festival, after the Omicron COVID-19 wave prevented a live version, wants people of all backgrounds to have fun and let loose at the new version of the show.
“The energy around identity shows can sometimes be a little sombre,” she admitted. “This is just going to be a fun time. We have a live band, which will let me live out my rock star fantasies. Roya (DelSol, the director of photography on the digital version) has created more videos and projections. I want people to relax those tense shoulders they often have at plays as if they’re going to a comedy club or a concert.”
While full of hilarious satire, “She’s Not Special” also deals with some serious hot-button subjects, like the pressure put on Black artists to represent their entire race in one show. And the temptation, guided by well-meaning white liberal artistic directors, to exploit any trauma in their background for dramatic dividends.
Adar, who jokes that as a Black Muslim woman she’s a “triple threat,” is encouraged by the kind of diversity she’s seeing onstage these days.
“Within a few months, we’ve had three options of Black operas to see,” she said. “And in terms of Black plays, you are now able to say, ‘This is more comedically my style’ or ‘That serious play is more my taste.’ You have this wide variety of options rather than this one play having to speak to everyone. Audiences are getting to know the difference between, say, a Kanika Ambrose play (like ‘our place’) or something director Weyni Mengesha is working on. I’m excited about the specificity of voices.”
Another sacred cow she goes after in “She’s Not Special” is the arts granting system, in which artists are encouraged to check off certain boxes. As a producer, she argues there’s an inherent flaw in that.
“I think (granting agencies) are assuming if they don’t have specific boxes checked they won’t have any works representing certain voices,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s true. It’s like with acting awards. If you have people of all genders included, many assume just white men will get nominated even if they’re not making the best work. I think all this has more to do with the assumptions of the cultural gatekeepers.”
Having impressed cultural titans like Bo Burnham and her childhood idol Fefe Dobson — the latter contributed a message for “She’s Not Special” — Adar is getting more comfortable with positive critical attention, despite her history of impostor syndrome.
One thing she loves about working in live theatre, and more recently TV, is the fact that it’s collaborative, a big bonus after developing so many works in isolation during the pandemic.
“With ‘Dixon Road’ I remember thinking, ‘Sure I can be self-critical and feel like I don’t deserve something,’ but ultimately that kind of negative self-talk diminishes the efforts of all these other people doing so much work around me.”
Correction — May 18, 2023: This article was updated to correct that “She’s Not Special” will have a five-night run at Tarragon’s Mainspace Theatre, not Extraspace.
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