By Omari Newton. Directed by Diane Roberts. An Urban Ink production at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Friday, May 23. Continues until May 31
Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of is a lot of contradictory things, but one point is indisputable: this show is alive!
First-time playwright Omari Newton tells the story of a hip-hop group called Sal Capone that’s about to do a big gig when the police shoot their DJ, a guy named Sammy, nine times, sending him into a coma. Freddy, the group’s front man and its self-proclaimed central artist, believes that Sammy’s only crime was WWB: walking while black. Freddy wants to use the concert to provoke the police into violent behaviour—and record the evidence. Chase, who runs the business side, argues that the show should go ahead as planned, using canned beats. And Jewel, who’s Filipina but, according to Freddy, “hates herself for not being a six-foot black man with dreads”, holds the deciding vote. Shaneyney, a cross-dressing biologically male sex worker, acts as narrator—until the story swallows her.
Director Diane Roberts’s production looks great. Set designer Ana Cappelluto leaves the cavernous Roundhouse space wide open, so the place feels like it’s been seconded for a rave. And video designer Candelario Andrade collaborates with Cappelluto, who also did the lights: black-and-white images pour over the brick walls, and spotlights swirl. The beats, which were mostly composed or selected by Troy Slocum, kill.
Playwright Newton was inspired by the deadly police shooting of Fredy Villanueva—and the ensuing riot—in Montreal six years ago, and the script’s greatest strength is that it embraces fury while acknowledging complexity. Freddy versifies about revenge-killing a cop, but insists that he’s not a thug; he’s just using the aggressive tropes of hip-hop. But you’ve got to pay attention to the power of words and fantasies when Jewel pulls out a gun.
There’s lots of humour. Desperate to find a revolutionary uniform that fits, Filipina Jewel keeps calling herself a “nigga”. And Freddy’s little sister Naomi repeatedly corrects everybody else’s deliberate errors in grammar.
Set within the fag-baiting world of hip-hop, Sal Capone raises its fist against homophobia.
Newton overloads his political agenda, though. To illustrate the difficulties of being a female hip-hop artist, for instance, Jewel recounts how a bunch of guys tried to rape her. Because the speech is narratively tangential, it comes across as polemical.
And Sal Capone is poorly structured. Debates about art, commerce, and violence, as well as racial, gender, and national identities become repetitive. And the framing device—will the show go on?—feels creaky.
The performances are first-rate, though. Tristan D. Lalla (Freddy) sometimes falls into a Shatner-esque speech patterns—“I am not trying. To make a hit. I’m trying. To make. A Statement”—but the feelings that he draws on are so deep that he made me weep. Billy Merasty’s Shaneyney is also moving, Jordan Waunch’s Chase is a driving force, and Kim Villagante’s Jewel is an earthquake. As Naomi, Letitia Brookes brings leavening warmth and wit.
Sal Capone is young and raw. In that, there are more strengths than limitations.