Daniel Ward’s play with music, The Canary and the Crow, gives a semi-autobiographical window into the experiences of a young black boy at a mostly white private school. His story reflects the code switching he’s forced to do to exist between black and white spaces, and the extra pressure on a scholarship student to use this opportunity he’s been given. Layered with hip hop and grime, cellos and beats, this gig-theatre show has a frenetic energy (with an MC to boot, Prez 96 (Nigel Taylor)). But it’s Ward’s poetry, imagery, and structure that give the play its strength.
Ward himself plays two roles; ‘The Actor’ who introduces the story and how it sprung from a recent drama school incident, and ‘The Bird’, the young man who gets into an all-boys school and finds his life evolving in ways he could not predict: gaining new friends, hurting old ones, changing who he is and not changing, watching assumptions about him morph and racism persist.
Ward’s descriptions of the tensions of moving back and forth between spaces was eerily familiar to me, although I’m a white woman so my experience is by no means the same. 30 years ago I started as a scholarship student at a private school. I sought out this opportunity not fully realizing what a culture clash I was to experience and what a lonely road it would be to walk. But I still remember incidents of class discomfort that make me blush at the recollection, and the discovery of feeling out of place in a way I have never known existed before. As your world expands, your understanding of your place in it becomes less certain.
For ‘The Bird’ there is a balance of identities–who you are to the people in your old neighborhood, and to the people in your new one. Ward nails that sense of always letting someone else down just by being fluid between worlds. It can feel like a zero sum game, as any bending in one direction means moving away from the other. It is a strange and difficult sting to want to be ‘you’ in this bi-cultural existence, but others see that inevitably as a betrayal because you are ‘changing’. That can be paired with the realization that anything you achieve for yourself comes with a fear that maybe you can never go back and truly be comfortable again where you came from. You are given a kind of X-ray vision to see a bigger world, but it also makes you a touch radioactive.`
This discomfort is vastly magnified by incidents of racism and bias towards ‘The Bird’. Divided into life lesson chapters (maths, politics, citizenship), Ward shows aggregating moments of racial injustice at this private school, and how they gradually become unbearable. He also addresses the concept of ‘the acceptable black’. It’s a pernicious idea which takes away someone’s voice, identity, and complexity, turning them into someone they don’t recognize. Here, ‘The Bird’ experiences microaggressions where he is ‘celebrated’ as different from other black boys. He is granted “access” by white boys who think they are in control of this world. It begins to eat away at ‘The Bird’.
Has he been sublimating his feelings and thoughts to fit in, or is he just being himself while others recategorize him from ‘threatening’ to ‘not’? Is it a little bit of both? It’s the kind of thing that fucks with your sense of self. Ward as ‘The Bird’ presents both the child slowly discovering his own situation, and the adult who knows what’s coming. He flips his backpack on the ground like a young schoolboy, loosening his school tie and shaking the day’s battles off. At the same time, he holds himself in our gaze as a black man who has endured more than we can imagine. He may smile but it suggests a torrent of feelings behind it unspoken.
While the riotous gig-theatre atmosphere serves the material, I wish the production treated some of its moments with as much subtlety as Ward’s script teases out. As ‘The Bird’ ages and his perceptions around these incidents become more acute, the discomfort in his situation increases. But the production tends to treat the show, beginning to end, with a similar style and musical gloss. Some emotional beats get trampled. Certain directorial choices allow for broad laughter but I wasn’t always sure that laughter was intended or welcome. The way the buffoonish, posh head of school character is performed is so cartoonish it threatens the ideas of real harm he stands for–white supremacy perpetuating its control. It’s not funny at all but the audience laughs at the comedic performance, which is.
How much of this worry is in my head though? I want the audience’s enthusiasm to be in support of ‘The Bird’. But white audiences cannot always be trusted to pay attention. Are they really listening?
If they aren’t, Ward ends on a beat of powerful defiance: “I dare you to tell me it’s not relevant.” His art, he means.
But I wasn’t thinking for one moment it wasn’t.
The Canary and the Crow is on at Paines Plough Roundabout, Summerhall, until 25th August. More info and tickets here.