Tarragon Theatre Unleashes a Powerful and Funny Redbone Coonhound

Chala Hunter and Christopher Allen in Redbone Coonhound at the Tarragon Theatre. Photo Credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

The Toronto Theatre Review: Tarragon Theatre’s Redbone Coonhound

By Ross

I fixed all that racism,” he says, just before Redbone Coonhound, the new play co-written by the interracial couple, Amy Lee Lavoie (Rabbit, Rabbit) and Omari Newton (Black Fly), dives down deep into the power and impact of language and words in ways that both astound and destroy, both in the best of all possible manners. The couple at the heart of the piece, Mike, played intensely by Christopher Allen (Canadian Stage’s Sweat) and his wife, Marissa, played strongly by Chala Hunter (Segal’s Travesties), might be seen as stand-ins for the playwrights, as they enter into a tense and uncomfortable conversation ignited by an unintentional interaction one lovely afternoon in the park. Said to be based on an actual real-life collision of sorts, the young couple begins a conversation with an older white couple, played most impressively by Deborah Drakeford (ARC’s Martyr) and Brian Dooley (Theatre Network’s Gordon), over their pointedly friendly dog who seems more interested in Mike than anyone else, much to the displeasure of both. It turns out that this breed of dog goes by the name, Redbone Coonhound, which signals some racist tracking that doesn’t really register too much meaning to white Marissa. But for Mike, these words have a whole history of intense power dynamics while also representing the pain and subjugation of an oppressed race, his, in particular. “It hurts me to explain it,” he states.

The words used to describe the breed, in isolation, have hot racist meanings and set an agitated fire inside Mike that ricochets throughout the whole space they inhabit, throwing sparks of disruption into more arenas than we could imagine. It elicits heated discussion between the two that quickly elevate, but nothing in comparison to what happens later on in this well-crafted play between this interracial couple and their friends; a black couple, played intently and wisely by Kwesi Ameyaw (Pacific’s The Mountaintop) and Lucinda Davis (Centaur’s Doubt), and a white single guy, played pretty brilliantly by Jesse Dwyre (Segal’s Red) who seems to have a difficult time thinking before speaking.

Those two words, Redbone Coonhound, send the play swirling, as well as the play’s solid group of actors, into multiple scenarios and different moments in time, past and future, unpacking layers upon layers of complex constructs that revolve around race, racism, misogyny, sexism, privilege, and hypocrisy, with the actors donning numerous hats and brilliantly exaggerated costumes, designed wonderfully by Nalo Soyini Bruce (Black Theatre Workshop’s Pipeline) that add engagement to the unraveling. And that description only hints at the complicated topics that are hunted down and unleashed. It’s impressive that this writing duo has found their way through this myriad of complexities without getting lost in the overly intense interactions. It stays true, unearthing a hilariously smart and sly play that never gives up its sense of purpose, or its sense of fun.

As wisely and wildly directed with style by Micheline Chevrier (Segal’s Top Girls), we are transported back and forth through time and space, literally, on a simple white projectable stage, designed smartly by Jawon Kang (DWP/Stratford’s Mary Stuart) with wild and wonderfully in tune projections by Frank Donato (Tarragon‘s Orestes). With strong lighting by Michelle Ramsay (Factory’s The Waltz) and a solid sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne (Tarragon‘s Buffoon), it shoots out confrontational engaging moments, and gives us access to a wide range of characters. We are surprised by a modern rap version of an American icon, Harriet Tubman, beautifully embodied by Davis, stepping in to save the day, as well as a put-upon white woman (Drakeford) who goes from being used as a table to declaring, “I vow to live my life like a Black woman would… Except for the hard parts.”

Choo-Choo Motherfuckers!” And with that moment of excitement and clarity, Redbone Coonhound is off and running. It shifts from the present day to the past or the future, navigating life through an intersectional lens and trying hard to make strong points while playing most purposefully with all the different realms of experience. It gives so many thoughtfully strong moments, without ever feeling self-righteous or arrogant. We can’t help but sit in wonder at the quick sharp lines that unleash so much meaning, while also making us laugh at all the wildly successful constructions set forth before us.

The strongest scene, which made many a person squirm in their seats as they laughed loud and true, was when we are ushered into the home of a white couple, once again played by the miraculously good Drakeford and Dooley, who, against a backdrop of bongo drums and African-centric art, are agast and annoyed with their young daughter (Hunter). They howl with displeasure as they sit in their culturally appropriated inappropriate outfits, struggling to understand and accept that she has brought home a white intellectual, played beautifully by Dwyre, and announced that they plan to marry. They can’t take it in, shouting to the heavens ‘no’, as they wonder “why?!?” They feel that they had done everything in their power in order for their daughter to want to marry a black man. And are horrified that she doesn’t understand. They say it’s because they want a ‘real’ athlete in the family, but it’s far deeper and more demented that just that. The scenario is a profoundly intense, amusing, and intelligent assessment of racism and privilege, shaken apart and pulled back together again by some news the young white man receives from an Ancestry test that is cause for celebration. And astonishment.

Mike’s anger resonates throughout but what really takes this play forward is the ideas unleashed, without having to have a nice ending of realization and agreement. It’s filled with conflicting emotions and impossible conflicts seared in deep-rooted pain. Overt and covert racism has not been eliminated, like it almost has been in the 2030 universe out there in space. It lives on, infuriatingly and devastatingly so, tearing hearts and friendships apart from the vulnerability it has exposed. The actors all do magnificent jobs pulling apart and delivering Redbone Coonhound to the end, as they confront and send out into the universe ideas that are confrontational and dynamic, while never losing any opportunity to laugh. It’s a remarkable feat, one that everyone should take in and think about, once you stop with the uncomfortable laughter.

Redbone Coonhound runs at Tarragon Theatre through March 5. Tickets are available here.

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