Theatre is sometimes a place of escapism, but it can also be a form of self-expression. There’s a tension between slipping into character and standing out as yourself. This dilemma was especially felt by David Ward, who felt his black racial identity was being eroded by the system around him. His semi-autobiographical play The Canary and the Crow wrestles with this issue, showcasing a black middle-schooler who transfers under a scholarship to a prestigious, and majority white, private school: a change in environment that disorientates his entire world. Ward passionately recounts his struggle for acceptance in his youth, while simultaneously trying to avoid assimilation, a story featuring musical accompaniment and songs. The music is a mixture of classical and hip-hop, symbolising the blend of white and black culture the boy faces, and Ward seems sceptical of within the story. His new posh white peers are eager to appropriate the benefits of black culture while remaining ignorant of the experiences and lives behind them.
Regardless, the mixed composition works incredibly well within the show, maintaining the lively and infectious energy which Ward exudes. Despite the difficult and personal subject matter, Ward carries a youthful and joyous energy, easily drawing the crowd in with both heart and humour. He and the rest of the MiddleChild theatre group make the audience laugh at the absurdity of racism, and then sympathise with its serious effect on society.
Occasionally, however, the caricatures within the prestigious school are too cartoonish, complete with comical musical notes, detracting from the effectiveness of the racist portrayals by turning it into a joke. The show removes the audience from any culpability a bit too easily, and despite its best intentions, The Canary and the Crow sometimes feels slightly too safe; a condemnation without consequence. However, this is wonderfully counterbalanced by moments of more subtle and ‘sincere’ prejudice, including a quietly devastating final scene with one of the boy’s new white friends, made far more uncomfortable because he thinks he’s being tolerant.
The Canary and the Crow is most interesting when dealing with discrimination on the margins, rather than the obvious ones, such as how minorities are put in the uncomfortable position of being ‘acceptable tokens’. This is very well articulated by Ward, whose grounded reality is matched with poetic language of straddling racial barriers. Nigel Taylor adds further insight with Snipes, a childhood friend of Ward’s boy, whose ambition is unmatched with his opportunities. Laurie Jamieson and Rachel Barnes round out the cast with multiple white roles, as well as playing the instruments. But Ward’s character is the centre of it all, being charming and energetic, until he becomes devastated and exhausted from the intense identity crisis he’s been placed in.
Overall, sometimes the play is too explicit, and too fun, for its own good. While Ward wants to both entertain and inform, the latter goal is a little too direct, while the former prevents the righteous anger Ward has from full impact. It’s certainly not the first story about the black experience, although it remains a relevant one, and it’s definitely sincerely told and, at times, devastatingly emotional.
The Canary and the Crow is on at Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 23)
At 19:50 until August 25th (excluding 20th)
Book tickets here