Unsafe is billed as a performance documentary that is an inquiry into censorship and art in Canada. It is also the story of its own creation, as it were, because we follow how the idea behind Unsafe, grew into the show now being performed at the Berkeley. It is also, of course, something much more. Unsafe may fly off in tangents, and at times be unruly, but it is a fund of fascinating information that leads to provocative questions.
Polymath Sook-Yin Lee, who is credited as writer/creator of Unsafe, has a reputation as an interdisciplinary artist and media personality with a radical edge. Who better to construct a show about censorship and art? The initial idea came from former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, and Lee’s interview with him opens the show. Jocelyn had commissioned writer/director Zack Russell to create a play about the 1993 case of Toronto artist Eli Langer, whose paintings were confiscated from a gallery show by the police because they were deemed to be child pornography. Russell (who is listed as consultant on the project), in turn asked Lee to work with him, she representing the diversity card, so to speak. Through various circumstances, as outlined in the production, Lee ended up with the project.
The throughline of the play is the running conversation between Russell (actor Christo Graham) and Lee as they work through how they are going to treat the subject of censorship and art. Russell had already ruled out the writing of a conventional narrative. By default, documentary style was going to be their modus operandi. Unsafe is peppered with interviews Lee filmed with artists, critics and social theorists about censorship. A significant number were directly censored themselves, including Lee. From theatre pieces like Hair, Futz and Robert Lepage’s Slav, to forbidden indigenous music and the aborted TTC lightboard installation, the long arm of censorship has taken its toll. Some controversies just sneak delightfully into the show, such as one of the Russell/Lee conversations taking place with the two and a mannequin (Lee being naked), mirroring Manet’s seated trio in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863).
The show is strongest when it sticks to the point. The brainstorming duo raises a plethora of intriguing issues as they grapple with the topic. The times when Lee goes into personal matters, such as the break-up of a long-term relationship, seems gratuitous. Director Sarah Garton Stanley has tried to instil a casual, folksy, unstudied quality to the production, which, while at times seems contrived, works in the main. The conversations between Russell and Lee are of paramount importance, and the more natural they sound, the more rooted in reality is the project. There are, needless to say, some genuine laughs, such as finding out the law in the city of Kingston that said you can be naked on stage, but you can’t move, which affected a production of Hair.
Unsafe may have a “let’s put on a show in the barn” aspect to its unpolished veneer, but Lee was surrounded by some of the finest production designers in town. Christine Urquhart (sets), Steve Lucas (lights), Ming Wong (costumes), Ali Berkok (sound), Roxanne Luchak (video). This show just didn’t grow like Topsy. There’s also the work of dramaturg Birgit Schreyer Duarte who penned a long note in the program about the process of the show’s creation. And don’t forget master director Stanley. Sometimes the creation of something seemingly simple takes a lot of work.
The title Unsafe is clever. An artist is unsafe as soon as he/she begins a new work. It is unknown territory. The body politic feels unsafe when threatened by some artistic choices. The word unsafe can then be transmigrated to embrace a huge array of ideas related to censorship and art, and to her credit, Lee does cover a good chunk of the waterfront. Unsafe, despite its flaws, is still a stimulating conversation.
The short town hall that follows gives audience members a chance to express their views or ask questions. On the night I attended the performance, Unsafe had clearly engaged the crowd.
Canadian Stage, Unsafe, written and created by Sook-Yin Lee, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, Berkeley Street Theatre, Mar. 12 to 31, 2019.