Mixed-heritage artists find their place at the Vancouver Fringe Festival
Whether using comedy, clowning, or poetry, Fringe stars question identity and the drive to belong
Mixed-race identity is so complex we often try to quantify it, reducing it to simple fractions.
Actor-playwright Monica Ogden talks about it in her Monica vs. the Internet: Tales of a Social Justice Warrior, one of a wave of bold and often funny shows that tackle the subject at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. People usually push the Filipino Canadian, who also has Polynesian and British ancestry, to define her identity in terms of quarters and halves.
“I really tear apart that system,” she explains to the Straight from her home in Victoria, before bringing her solo production here. “For mixed-race people, it’s really wholes of our identity. A lot of people also assume you’re European and ‘other’.”
Three artists at this year’s fest untangle that complexity and the feeling of being “in between”. And not surprisingly, when the topic’s mixed heritage, they’re combining a range of forms to do it—from storytelling to clowning, comedy, video, and poetry.
Along the way, they’ve found a space to finally call their own.
As Lili Robinson says of her play Mx: “When I started writing this show, I felt very uncertain what community I belong to. I was not sure where I fit in.”
Biracial and light-skinned, she was raised in a white Vancouver family with no contact with her African-American father’s side. She describes viewing her own blackness at a distance until her late teens. That’s when news reports about police shootings of unarmed black men in the U.S. sparked a desire to stand up and reclaim that part of her identity.
Graduating from the theatre program at Studio 58 last spring, Robinson had already been questioning what it meant to be a performer and a person of colour. At the same time, she was trying to find a place in the queer community as a person who identifies as bisexual.
“So I was feeling a bit in-between, and at the start of writing about that, I felt very anxious,” says the actor-playwright, who gained extra motivation by earning the Fringe New Play Prize last year. “Working through things, writing has always been how I process emotions. I feel a lot more confident coming out of this. I am what I am.”
Mx, which plays at the Revue Stage, is a three-person show featuring Mz. Nancy, a character that draws on bouffon-style clowning and the half-spider, half-human Anansi figure from African folklore. The story centres on Max, “a young gender-questioning mixed-race person searching for their identity”, Robinson says. “And then there’s this third character, Samantha, who is sort of an opposing force to that.”
The use of humour and folklore allows Robinson to tackle some dark subject matter, such as slavery, and dig into pressing personal questions—like how much ancestry plays into identity when a person’s upbringing didn’t embrace one of the cultures in her bloodline.
“Clowning allows me to be able to directly speak to this dynamic of being observed as a person of colour on-stage,” she adds. “We’re seeing more and more diversity on-stage in Vancouver, but the tricky thing is speaking to the dynamic in the room—which is the reality that the audience is mostly white and will have preconceptions of what’s happening on-stage. For me, the clown was a way to speak to that in every moment. I see you seeing me and we’re in direct contact.”
Building Mx, Robinson has brought together a team with a strong contingent of African-Canadian women (including Ontario director Donna-Michelle St. Bernard) and LGBT artists. And in so doing, she’s finally found the right fit. “You create community by creating a show,” she says. “It’s rewarding finding other people at those intersections. Because of politics right now, it’s very polarized, and it’s important to ask ‘Is there a middle ground that can be found?’ ”
For theatre artist Nyla Carpentier, the big moment when she started questioning where she belonged came 10 years ago, at a surreal audition for a part in the Wolf Pack in the Twilight film series.
At the cattle call, “some were Indigenous, some were like me, some were trying to look like what they think an Indigenous person is, all in this massive line,” recalls Carpentier, who traces her heritage back to Tahltan First Nation, Kaska First Nation, France, and Scotland, speaking to the Straight over the phone from her Vancouver home. “I had all these thoughts. I was wearing my gothic, long red coat and this reporter who was covering it came over and said, ‘You could be one of the vampires.’ ”
That spurred Carpentier to start writing what would eventually be Dissection of a…Mixed Heritage Woman, which hits the Revue Stage at this year’s Fringe. And it led her to look back on her life as a mixed-race Indigenous person and see where she started feeling out of place. She recalls early happy years, living in Ottawa and taking part in powwows as a dancer from the time she was just two years old. Things changed when she went to a predominantly white elementary school, where kids sometimes struggled to understand just who or what she was.
“I did my first powwow show at school when I was in Grade 6 at French-immersion class in Ottawa, and I remember being asked if I was a ‘real Indian’,” she recalls. “In the show I address head-on the things I’ve been asked about my heritage. One section that’s survived the last 10 years of rewrites is the things people used to ask me—things they would say in my 20s that they’d never say today. And the way I would try to make a joke about it, trying to make it funny.”
In her show, Carpentier takes a hard look at labels she’s struggled with over the years—loaded words like status, half-breed, full-blood, and Métis.
Along the way, the artist ends up blending different performance styles from her background. There are elements of formal theatre, which she studied at Studio 58 before switching to Full Circle: First Nations Performance about a decade ago. “Full Circle was less about fitting in a box of what a traditional actor should be,” she says. “It was more freedom to work with who I was.”
The solo play also integrates Indigenous practices and ceremony, poetry, and song.
“I’m using all the things I learned on this journey,” Carpentier says. “It’s not about me fitting in now, but about finding space so others of mixed heritage can actually take centre stage too.”
When Ogden launched a web video series called “Fistful of Feminism”, it was to carve out her own identity online. “I started making YouTube videos because there wasn’t a place for me as a mixed-race Asian person,” says the gender-studies grad, speaking to the Straight from Victoria. “And then I found there wasn’t any place for me on the Internet.”
What Ogden wasn’t prepared for was the hate spewed at her by online trolls.
Ogden has taken those racist slurs, which her channel still attracts, and turned them into theatre. The result is Monica vs. the Internet, a solo show that mixes storytelling, video elements, and comedy.
“The inception was to take real Internet comments and make a show about them,” she says. “There were just ridiculous racist comments, and part of it is to let me prove to you that white supremacy is still an issue. People still believe that it doesn’t exist. This is an assertion of ‘Yes it does.’ ”
One putdown a hater threw at her, as viewers will see in her show, was to call Ogden a “discount albino Margaret Cho”. “I thought, ‘Wow, they went out of their way to hurt me but they have flattered me!’ ” Ogden says with a laugh.
But the candid monologue—which plays the Nest venue, and won a Pick of the Fringe: Bravest Show award at the Victoria Fringe Festival in 2017—is just as much about Ogden’s own identity search and the women in her family who have faced their battles with racism and kept her strong. “The heart is really about my mom and my lilang,” she says, using the Ilocano word for “grandma”.
“I bring my history back to my grandma’s immigration. All the answers are in our ancestors. It isn’t just about me, it’s about my mom, my lilang, and me, and intergenerational trauma.”
Though Ogden, like Robinson and Carpentier, navigates some sensitive subject matter in her exploration of what it means to be of mixed race in Canada today, she, too, finds the humour in it.
“My comedy and laughter can’t be separated from my performance, just like my Filipino-ness cannot be separated from my Polynesian-ness and British-ness,” she says, laughing. “Oh my gosh, it’s the only way to do a show like this!”
The Vancouver Fringe Festival runs at venues on Granville Island and around town from Thursday (September 5) to September 15.