Mx directly confronts racism, diaspora, and the audience at Vancouver Fringe

Playwright Lili Robinson tackles the uncomfortable and the beautiful of her mixed-race heritage in Mx

Mx stars Lili Robinson, who is also the show’s playwright. Image courtesy of Christache Ross / The Georgia Straight.

By: Ben McGuinness, Peak Associate

Winner of the 2019 Fringe New Play Prize, Mx is an intense and intimate play written and featuring Studio 58 graduate Lili Robinson. Having no qualms with confrontation or opaque autobiographical findings, it personifies the struggle between the black and white expectations placed on mixed-race main character Max (later called Mx, pronounced mix).

The play’s opening monologue includes an acknowledgement of the performance taking place on unceded territories. Here we establish that the “mother of diaspora,” Mz. Nancy (Alisha Davidson) is not speaking in front of the audience but to the audience. In fact, soon she is even talking about the audience (Note: Mz. Nancy alludes to Anansi, knower of stories, and trickster in West African and Caribbean folklore).

In her opening dialogue, Mz. Nancy openly confronts the audience about their complicity in colonialism, calls out Vancouver’s “colour blindness” towards race, bemoans people of colour being asked where they are “from,” and laughs at the idea of reparations. Her confident, saucy, and slightly nutty demeanor helps ease the tension, and the audience will remain a collective character of the play: they will be the gaze with which the protagonist contends as she comes face-to-face with questions about her identity.

Mz. Nancy draws a volunteer from the audience, who turns out to be Max (played by Robinson) — an anxious, mixed-race girl who is uncomfortable with Mz. Nancy’s confrontational monologue, especially as it is directed at her own heritage. But Mz. Nancy enlightens her to the idea of diaspora — or the shared heritage of those from African origins scattered around the world.

While Max warms up to Mz. Nancy’s ideology, another spirit (or demon) appears on stage to contend for her convictions as well. The demon — introduced as Samantha — is a saccharinely sweet white woman in a rustic dress who trods on stage and immediately pretends to be Max’s best friend. Rather than speaking about race or ancestry, Samantha feeds Max’s ego with compliments to her individuality.

Some pieces of exposition and thoughtwork are carried out by a talking map that Max is given. Were the play to expand, it would be interesting to see how these monologues might be decompressed to show Max exploring the map’s wisdom herself rather than it being explained.

Robinson’s writing is decidedly on-the-nose, not only for its lack of fourth wall, but also because it is not afraid of semiotics so strong it could be performance art. Mz. Nancy clearly beckons for Max to identify with her black heritage, while Samantha would like her to accept whiteness and the status quo while leaving the past unaddressed. The two dismiss each other, suggesting there isn’t room for both.

Mx addresses racism, Black erasure, and the complicity of false “colourblindness” — but leaving no stone unturned, it also confronts what can be the false promises of performative Black culture. While Samantha comes across as the foil in trying to lure Max away from the truth of her origins, Max must come to terms with the fact that Mz. Nancy is also manipulating her to claim her identity with romantic Pan-African ideology. Neither fully capture her truth.

As Max finds, the nature of diaspora is that the knowledge which was taken from her is lost, and she is more at ease accepting this than reveling in fiction. Yet when she finally dispels the two spirits from the stage, she asks the audience to take their ancestors with them as they leave.

Mx is brazen, intense, and loaded with things to say about blackness in Vancouver. The disregard for the fourth wall and the willingness to keep symbology and Robinson’s experiences right at the surface give it distinction, making it a Fringe-worthy, edgy affair.

At the time of publishing, Mx has finished its run at the Revue Stage on Granville Island. The play is likely to appear again outside of Fringe, where all are encouraged to meet the challenge of joining the audience and playing the gaze through the fourth wall.