This has been an awkward year for the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. The associate artistic director, Joyce Rosario, was let go in the midst of a pandemic, along with others. And health restrictions imposed by the provincial government have made it impossible to put on live theatrical or musical performances.
Stepping into the breach have been highly regarded Vancouver theatre artists Marcus Youssef and Maiko Yamamoto.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Youssef pointed out that there was a reaction from the community when Rosario left because the PuSh festival is so meaningful to so many artists. “Suddenly you have an organization that’s been central to the development of many of our careers and our lives without any artistic leadership whatsoever,” he said.
After discussions were held within the arts community, Youssef and Yamamoto are now curating an online series of conversations and artist presentations called the 2021 PuSh Rally. And it features some imaginative participants who are certain to raise consciousness around people’s privilege, identity, race, and historical systems of oppression.
It’s particularly timely in light of the monumental collective awakening unfurled in the wake of the police killing of African American George Floyd last year in Minneapolis.
Youssef said that this has been a huge part of his own thinking, questioning, and investigation for many years. And it’s been reflected in his work at Neworld Theatre.
“How do we sit inside systems that we know are unjust?” he said. “And how do we navigate the effects of those systems and try to change those systems—and at the same time care for individuals and care for each other as individuals inside that context? I think it’s a critical question.”
This will be explored in several events, including a conversation that Youssef will have with New York author, playwright, and public intellectual Sarah Schulman.
She’s the author of 19 novels as well as the new nonfiction book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993. She’s also the author of Conflict Is Not Abuse and The Gentrification of the Mind.
Youssef said he spoke with Schulman more than a year ago at the Stratford Festival about the productive value of conflict.
“Her work is entirely about how do we navigate conflict in ways that move the culture forward and that doesn’t destroy relationships,” he noted.
In another event, Vancouver theatre artist and writer Carmen Aguirre and Iqaluit actor, musician, filmmaker, and storyteller Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory will each share their visionary approaches.
Youssef pointed out that Laakkuluk, as he refers to her, is a practitioner of uaajeerneq, a Greenlandic Inuit form of dramatic expression entailing mask dancing.
“It’s really profane and really intense—and funny but scary,” Youssef said. “It was actually utterly banned by missionaries in Greenland for being the devil’s work.”
He has known Aguirre since the early 1990s, after she graduated from Studio 58 and he moved to Vancouver after graduating from the National Theatre School.
Youssef described Aguirre, whose family escaped Chile after the Pinochet coup, as “one of our city’s real treasures, both as a writer but also as a kind of cultural presence or thinker”.
He added that she has been consistently unafraid to adopt positions or inhabit perspectives that might not be popular.
“She’s very difficult to pin down ideologically,” Youssef said. “And yet she is someone who has consistently been challenging the status quo, and sometimes the super PC liberal status quo. All status quos. But she does so in a way that is absolutely clear and not at all aggressive.”
Youssef is also excited to be joining Pulitzer Prize–winning (Fairview) playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury in an exploration of the overwhelming whiteness of theatre audiences in North America. They’ll be joined by director Sarah Benson, set designer Mimi Lien, and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly.
Drury’s play Fairview opens with a Black family dealing with various issues. Youssef likened this as being akin to watching The Cosby Show. But over time, the voices of people who sound white overlay what’s taking place on the stage—and these unseen voices are talking about race.
“You hear this really hilarious, really cutting-true conversation,” Youssef explained. “And then you realize they’re talking about the play.”
To Youssef, it’s exciting to engage audiences in explorations of the impact of the ideology of supremacy.
It's worth noting that he spoke to the Straight on the same day that white supremacists were storming the U.S. Capitol.
The fact that he can do this is also a reflection of the magnitude of changes that have occurred since Youssef first became friends with Aguirre in the early 1990s.
Back then, there were hardly any directors and playwrights of colour in Canada, let alone two who were politically motivated and who traced their roots back to so-called brown countries.
“In some ways, we looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re the only other one,’ ” Youssef said with a laugh.
On a more serious note, he added that Aguirre’s practice, like his, engages with the world in raising fundamental critical questions.
“We don’t always agree,” Youssef acknowledged. “We disagree a lot… It’s the kind of discourse, I believe, that we really need right now, which is a discourse based on a fundamental recognition of the other’s humanity.”