Beauty emerges from ugliness in David Harrower's Blackbird

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      Blackbird is the story of Una and Ray, two people with a past. In David Harrower’s play, Una has shown up unexpectedly, after 15 years, to confront Ray about that past, one in which she loved and trusted him, and was used and abandoned by him.

      If that setup makes it sound as if the two were lovers, guess again. When last they met, Una was a 12-year-old child and Ray was her 40-year-old sexual abuser.

      Rodney DeCroo, who will be playing Ray in One Story Collective’s upcoming local production of Blackbird, under the direction of David Bloom, notes that, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself, Blackbird is an important piece of work to him. The actor says he finds the experience of playing Ray triggering but healing. That’s one of the reasons he was drawn to it, but there are others.

      “First and foremost, it’s an amazing fucking play,” he says, interviewed between rehearsals alongside Panthea Vatandoost (Una) at Renegade Productions in the farthest reaches of East Vancouver. “The writing is incredible, and the two roles are unbelievable roles. I mean, actors spend their whole careers hoping to play roles like this.”

      Vatandoost agrees: “Just speaking purely on the technical, craft side of it, it’s taking all the training I’ve ever had to work on this,” she says. “It’s really exciting to have that much time on-stage, to have that much emotional life to dig into and to work with.”

      For DeCroo, part of the challenge is that, in order to inhabit the character, and even make him a sympathetic figure in the eyes of the audience, he has to be able to embody Ray’s tragically flawed understanding of himself. “Ray doesn’t believe he’s a pedophile—but at the same time, he likes children,” he says. “So I have to commit to that, and that’s really hard, because I can’t judge him. I can’t apologize for him when I’m playing him.
      I have to commit fully to who he is. ”

      “I think Ray really wants to believe that this was a romantic, star-crossed-lovers sort of situation,” Vatandoost adds, “and I think part of Una wants to believe that too.”

      Panthea Vatandoost and Rodney DeCroo star in Blackbird.
      Violet Cameron

      When Una seeks Ray out, their lives have diverged significantly. After a stint in prison, Ray has changed his name to Peter and settled into a stable career and by-all-appearances-happy marriage. Una, on the other hand, is something of a mess, having never fully recovered from Ray’s abuse and her lack of closure with him.

      “The adult part of her wants him to admit that he was wrong, that he was a monster, that he was a pedophile, and that he only wanted to abuse her,” Vatandoost says. “And then there’s the other part of her that wants to hear him say, ‘I did love you. I did care about you, and I’m sorry.’ And neither of those are the right answer.”

      DeCroo, whose own work has dealt with his painful childhood and his ongoing struggle with PTSD, is no stranger to emotionally fraught subject matter. He insists that the darkest art can be the most uplifting for what it reveals about the human spirit.

      “To see these two people engaged in this struggle together, regardless of what you think of Ray, it’s beautiful,” DeCroo says. “Even though it’s fuckin’ horrible, it’s also beautiful. That’s not for everybody, but I want art that’s going to challenge me. Art that can go into the ugliest places and find beauty is the kind of art that I need.”

      One Story Collective presents Blackbird at Backspace from Wednesday (March 21) to April 1.