Intro
Welcome to episode 226 of Stageworthy, I’m your host, Phil Rickaby. Stageworthy is a podcast about people in Canadian theatre, featuring conversations with actors, directors, playwrights and more. In this episode, I’ll be talking to Natasha Morris.

If you’ve been listening to Stageworthy for a while, or maybe you’re a first time listener, and you’re listening through a link on the website or through social media, did you know that you can subscribe so that you never miss an episode of Stageworthy? You can do that by searching for Stageworthy on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts and clicking the handy subscribe button, so that every week, the new episode of Stageworthy will be delivered right to you. And if you subscribe, let me know that you’re a new subscriber. If you want to drop ME a line, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @philrickaby, and my website is philrickaby.com. 

You can find Stageworthy on Facebook, twitter and instagram @stageworthypod, and  the website, where you can find the archive of all 203 episodes at at Stageworthypodcast.com. 

As I mentioned, my guest is Natasha Morris. Natasha is an award winning playwright, as well as the founder and creator of PIECE OF MINE Arts. She is the playwright and director of The Negroes are Congregating, opening March 3, and running to March 14, at Theatre Passe Muraille, in Toronto.

Phil Rickaby
Can you give me just a like – what, what would be the elevator pitch for The Negroes Are Congregating? Can you give Is it is it is it can it be simplified enough

Natasha Morris
By looking at eternal internalised racism from a pan African view, but mainly placed in Toronto.

Phil Rickaby
Mainly based in Toronto?

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
Was there a particular event made you want to write this?

Natasha Morris
I think several, just because it’s written sort of us sketches.There was just pieces that started to stick together. And I was like, when I had a conversation randomly, and the negros or congregating popped up, I was like, Ooh, that’s a great name for a show. And I think I have something to make that work. Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
You said you Have you seen… it is like several different different like sketches? Yeah were they written independently or did you know that they were going to be tied together?

Natasha Morris
Yeah independently, and they’re all just come from little occurrences or situations.

Phil Rickaby
Did you… like how and this is the kind of questions you don’t want at a talk back? Like from starting to write to finishinging, like how long did that take?

Natasha Morris
I feel like I had something solid – I had something to present 2015 2016 I expanded and edited and took a break 2017 and then with full fledged, presenting-wise 2018 and I’ve made my last most current. And it’s as of late January this year to be like, what is going forward?

Phil Rickaby
Do you feel like it’s done?

Natasha Morris
I feel like it is 98% done. Yeah, I’m not pushing so much for to be full length, although that affects so much things like how to apply for grad school I need to kind of abide by certain things, but like whatever it is, when it’s done, it’s done.

Phil Rickaby
yeah, I do find it like 70 minutes is long enough for an audience. I’ve seen shows that are an hour long and if it’s outside of a fringe situation, I feel like I’ve been ripped off.

Natasha Morris
Yeah,

Phil Rickaby
Somehow an hour is not enough. But give me an extra 10 minutes.

Natasha Morris
Exactly.

Phil Rickaby
Now you performed this at the Halifax Fringe.

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Were there other fringes that you took it to was Halifax the only fringe?

That was the only fringe. Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. Can I ask you what the reaction like what what kind of reaction you got in Halifax?

Natasha Morris
I’ll compare it to Toronto because that was the only Canadian city. I felt like the, like African Nova scotian community were really comfortable and connected with the content. Definitely lots of call and response unapologetically, even if it was like majority white audience. I think in Toronto, it gets very awkward, and tense, and I think because we don’t know much African Canadian history. I think the large sentiment is we’re post racial, and we’re multicultural. And racism is like if it does happen, it’s not that serious.

Phil Rickaby
Well white people like to think that.

Natasha Morris
But I don’t think it’s only white people.

Phil Rickaby
No? Do you think. Do you think the black people think that too?

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
Okay. Okay.

Natasha Morris
I would say like as a whole, but I know. I think it depends on what is your Canadian dream? What are you aspiring to? And so, if I’ve passed the stereotypes if you know I have the Masters, I have this great career if I live in this beautiful neighbourhood, then I’ve kind of changed the stigma and proved that racism – I haven’t let racism affect me. And that’s fair. But for other individuals and communities where there’s a different presence of racism You know, if you’re living in public housing and you have constant community policing, community policing, you’re going to schools and you’re getting suspended, expelled, placed in applied for, you know, no good reason other than, you know, just kind of like channelled, you’re just if nobody’s looking out for you, you’re probably not going to end up anywhere that you’d like to be. So, in this play, I think I do get backlash of like, well, that’s not my experience as a black person, because this is where I’m at and these are my pillars. And I’m like that’s fair. And then there’s also other folks that, have to go through more because there’s, there’s more complexity to it. There’s sexism. There’s, you know, being queer/lgbtq. There’s poverty. You know, there’s even developmental mental health all this. So. Yeah, like all these barriers.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. Do you think the Toronto idea of like we’re post racial comes from feeling like, well, this is not the states.

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah.

Natasha Morris
And I think that’s also by design with how we talk about this Black History Month. What are we learning? African American history? Yeah. And, and that’s tied into the Underground Railroad where slaves From America came here for refuge safety. We don’t talk about slavery existing in Canada. We don’t talk about slaves being captured and sent back. We don’t talk about our own unnamed like Jim Crow or Viola – Viola Desmond, like you have to sit upstairs and not downstairs in the white section. But it’s there. But, it’s there under the rug, just like residential schools and everything else.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah.

Natasha Morris
It’s like such a small piece. Why even bother?

Phil Rickaby
It’s always interesting that the Canadian Black History Month is so American.

Natasha Morris
Yeah, because it is American. It’s just American.

Phil Rickaby
And yet, we have Canadian black history that we don’t talk about

Natasha Morris
Right. There’s a part in the play… its a Game Show and it’s asking like who was the first black Prime Minister of Canada? This is a trick question.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah.

Natasha Morris
Justin Trudeau spotted. Sporting, different ethnicities. Throughout his “youth”, if you want to call it that. And because we’re Canadian and we apologise for him.It’s like it’s just the past. let’s not let’s not talk about it. It’s not that bad. And again, it’s like everything is swept under the rug.

Phil Rickaby
I find it so interesting that that a Toronto audience was more uncomfortable with it than say, the Halifax one.

Natasha Morris
Yeah, why didn’t they just have a closer tie to how the government or the society at large has been in opposition to having sovereignty amongst black communities. Because when your community is like bulldoze over for the sake of and this point, you know, a dog park, it was like What was all that for?

Phil Rickaby
Yeah.

Natasha Morris
And then to call where we live a slum where you specifically place the dump and hazardous waste. What do you think was gonna happen? It’s like why don’t you amend the problem but it’s like actually, the waterfront property is more important than your little community. Since the 1700s. So…

Phil Rickaby
It’s funny because I mean, I’ve gone out I’ve been at East a few times, so not so much to Halifax but you know, New Brunswick. New Brunswick is super white. SUPER white. Whereas Halifax seems super white. But there is a there is a black community there.

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
But if like they are because you can go through Halifax and feel like it’s as white as a number of other places in the maritimes until you realise Oh, wait no. There are black people here.

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
But they’re kept away from a lot of the city. I don’t know what

Natasha Morris
It’s like urban planning after the community’s destroyed and then what goes up? You know in the US we’ll call it projects but it’s government housing, any government people living government housing No. It’s just a title.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah.

Natasha Morris
And the difference is you’re going from owning your, your home, your working within your community taking on you know, any job that you have in any other community like a postal worker, ambulance, Doctor, firefighter, whatever. Business person of some sort. And now that’s gone. So, this is how much rent is here and go find a job, as you know a black person in the wider society,

Phil Rickaby
Yeah.

Natasha Morris
And that becomes more difficult to earn what you need to turn and it plays out to like family dysfunction, long term, detrimental effects.

Phil Rickaby
What has been – in terms of like both writing and presenting, the Negroes Are Congregating. How – What have you learned that surprised you?

Natasha Morris
I guess that even in everything that I’ve written, and I hope that no matter who’s in the audience, they feel troubled in some way. And I think, for the most part, there still is a tendency of like, how do white people feel about the show? Like that? Like, how do you feel? Do you feel that is anything that you you think, is problematic or that needs to be changed? Or are we really congregating in the way that we say we are? Or is it like every man for himself or crabs in the bucket type of mentality. I think it’s important to look at things I’ll say realistically. But everybody has a choice to make. And I think the stronger choice is being unified. But I think often the choice that’s made is, you know, whoever gets there gets there. And so the issues that are in the communities are generally economic. there I’m really kind of pulling from Bug at TPM in the star review or response to there not being any wait. Reviewers invited and saying look, well, if it’s that spiritual, that ceremonial Why are you even having it at Theatre Passe Muraille? Have you looked at how much space and property and infrastructure is owned and operated by indigenous people? And why should everything happen in the middle of nowhere where the government has sanctioned and created reserves that you still have to fight on a daily basis to make sure there’s not any pipeline or depositories of anything toxic into your land or your water? I was like, whose land is it and looking percentage wise, there’s a lot of instability. And I’m like there’s the black theatre too. There’s no black Theatre in Toronto essentially that’s like a venue.

Phil Rickaby
Like I like the venue itself.

Natasha Morris
Yeah. And I know there’s AKI studio at Daniels spectrum, but besides that and that goes for most communities, cultural communities outside of “the majority” that you know, Canadian Stage, Factory they’re all nonprofit, whatever but like, who owns and operates for the most part?

Phil Rickaby
There you bring a bug which I think is is is is interesting I when I… heard the the the, the decision to to not invite white reviewers. I remembered some of the reviews that came out of next stage. The the Tita jokes. There were a couple of reviews that were essentially- were racist. It was disheartening to see – to see them, but also not that much of a surprise. So it doesn’t surprise me that a production would say this is like we want people of colour to review this. We’ve heard enough from white people. There’s no reason that should be controversial.

Natasha Morris
Yeah. And I think what? What the general public tends to take from that is not even that they’re not invited. But you’re not inviting white people in general. To your show.

Phil Rickaby
And that is it. That is a ridiculous –

Natasha Morris
Like you jump to that.

Phil Rickaby
They’ve done –

Yeah.

Natasha Morris
And the other funny thing is, from what I’ve heard, is, you know, you still have if you’re a white reviewer, you buy your ticket and you can still review – and no we still don’t care.

Phil Rickaby
The thing is that the idea that I could then as a white reviewer, I could buy a ticket still review the show defeats the purpose of what they’re saying is they’re they’re saying I don’t want a white voice reviewing the show and so I go and I buy a ticket.

Natasha Morris
Yeah,

Phil Rickaby
So what i didn’t i didn’t get a comp but I’m still doing what you asked me not to.

Natasha Morris
Right. Like that’s that’s where I think you can’t control everything but I hope that most people will understand to get these type of reviews that just focused on alcoholism,

Phil Rickaby
Yes.

Natasha Morris
negativity, and frame in a way that’s like this is a story we know and this what I think I saw or what I should have seen,

Phil Rickaby
yes, yeah.

Natasha Morris
gets under people’s skin.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah.

Natasha Morris
And a lot of times in the script I have like microaggression whatever actors like macro aggression, because then that is how it feels when it just setting

Phil Rickaby
sure

Natasha Morris
But its like sticks and stones right?

Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I do think that this the the situation with Bug points out how few reviewers of colour there are

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
In the city, Which is is problematic. which I hope we do something about this something that I know that Generator it has a has a reviewer training programme. And you know there are reviewers that are not white but a lot of the ones that the major publications are very white.

Natasha Morris
Yeah.

Phil Rickaby
If I could change gears for a second, I do want to talk to you about what, what brought you on the path to writing for theatre and to presenting theatre.

Natasha Morris
I think I just like to write dark things. Like those are the stories that are interesting that have layers and people have problems. My mom’s like, What are you writing about? You know, there’s a mother who has like a drug habit and chain smoker and just sits on the couch all day. And like, I don’t know, it’s just like that sounds like interesting story. And she’s like, well don’t have like CSP called Where are you getting this inspiration from? But um Yeah, and I think that’s where we might my mind jumps different things of like, what’s up with that person? What’s their story? and poetry is also big thing. There’s a lot of spoken word in the piece. I don’t really put a filter on how I write which is why it comes out nonlinear. Probably in like, segments because that’s how I think as you can see, that’s how I talk. I’m just Like from one thought to the next. So I try and reflect that in how things come together.

Phil Rickaby
Did you have early experiences with theatre?

Natasha Morris
Um

I’m trying to think of my early – Yes. Yeah, I do remember, like grade two, just, it was like about the troll under the bridge and there’s the billy goats crossing. And I know I was a quiet child, but I’m not shy. And I really wanted to play like the troll. And it was given to my classmate who’s really extroverted. And you would think she did a great job. And I was in the chorus. I mean, I can’t sing either, whatever. And when it came time to perform, she was so nervous, she like cried and ran. And we had to like substitute her with the teacher to make it happen. I was like that should have been me. That’s like a story. You know, those childhood stories that bring things together. But I went to school, Etobicoke school of the Arts for drama. And I was thinking about doing drama, in university. Like, do I want to pay like 6000 to kind of do what I’ve been doing? And then I just did like my own part time studies would be current. They had a summer raisin programme, Raisin in the Sun programme, which is really fantastic because we like take the bus and go to shop for it and see Djanet Sears Harlem Duet. At the time, there was the “Afri-Canadian playwrights festival”, also led by Djanet Sears. And like every person of African descent, pretty much in Canada that was in theatre was part of that festival. And it happened every – i think – two or three years. And then I started d’bi Young and I was like, wow, this is it, I’ll see this, about three times.

Phil Rickaby
Did. Now when you before you went to the School of the Arts, had you been doing stuff in theatre?

Natasha Morris
I mean, like, I remember being in The Wizard of Oz musical and I was playing like, the tin woman which was just cool. I think I just wanted more things that related to me. So even throughout high school, I was like, theatre dell’arte Yes, yes, like, all right, well, how do I make this funky. or we’re doing comedy and like, I know these stand up jokes but I’m like, if I tell jokes that relate to me, are they gonna land with this audience? We’ll see. But I did sketch comedy with my friends, we would pretty much produce our own shows and bring in people, students from other schools to come and see and we had reoccurring characters. We’d film it, we started going out into the community, doing it, like having a little sketch comedy tour. Like Caribbean restaurants like Eglington, Eglington West popping up at fundraisers or whatever. That was what I funnelled my time into, like, literally skipping class. Let’s rehearse that. Yeah, cuz I was fun. I didn’t like so much most of the work that we’re doing in drama was boring.

Phil Rickaby
What do you think was missing from from the programme?

Natasha Morris
Representation? And I understand that if you have, you know, maybe two black girls or one black guy in the class, what are you gonna do like a whole coming to America type show when it doesn’t make sense for the demographic. So then you just kind of pull a monologue here and there when you can. And yeah, it’s like who’s gonna direct this? Who’s gonna be responsible in keeping all the faculty this way? So that’s why I’m glad we’re able to figure out something to do. But Black History Month asssembly was huge. Yeah. But at the same time, like getting a teacher to supervise after school, it’s like I think not. We had one teacher that was like, you know, I’m not here like as an ally or anything it’s just like everyone said no, I feel bad and I’ll stick around. Just don’t Eff anything, you know, don’t get me in trouble. I’ll keep coming Saturday evenings or whatever. And he was awesome. And that’s to me a little bit of allyship. It doesn’t have to be this huge research base evidence base commitment that you pledge and your initiated. This test they go through, like, I just think it’s like, are you cool, good person?

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. In his case it sounds like you just needed him to be there. So you could do the thing and he got out of your way

Natasha Morris
And I think It’s like just recognising. I think he picked up everyone playing it. Because other clubs and groups could get a teacher to be supervised. He’s like, yeah, I see what’s happening. Whatever.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. You mentioned that with the Negroes Are Congregating that you’d done it in Halifax that was the outside of Toronto, the Halifax Toronto but you serve as the Have you done it in the US and other places?

Natasha Morris
We’ve done it in Memphis, Atlanta and Washington, DC.

Phil Rickaby
So what is –

Natasha Morris
And Switzerland

Phil Rickaby
in Switzerland? Okay, so I want to come back to Switzerland. But when you doing it in the States, what’s the difference doing it in the states and doing it in Canada?

Natasha Morris
Well, we’ve done it at Black theatre festivals, Went to Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, the Black theatre network conference and the DC black Theatre Festival. And because I do peace of mind arts here, which is just basically working development by black playwrights. I’m used to black audiences. And so Summerworks. And Halifax is probably, you know, as diverse as it’s been. Summerworks more specifically but I – Switzerland was pretty good. I’d say it’s a it was a half and half because they really focused on outreach. The presenters themselves were like, We want to make sure it’s not just all a white audience, and I was like thank you. And it was good to see that myth debunked. Like, okay,

Phil Rickaby
the myth that Switzerland is like all white .

Natasha Morris
Yeah, Yeah. They were there. That’s pretty cool. I mean, even outside of the theatre, you could see. and I guess it’s an international city too. So yeah, so in the States, the reaction is just like, yeah, we know what you’re doing here. Go ahead, sister. Like, all for the unapologetically black content and really engaged, but also like, Is this like what happens in Canada? Or like, is there racism in Canada? Or they’re just trying to like catch a group on like, Is this all Canadian content? And I would just say it’s like in the States when you have, you know, the North versus the South. You know, there’s a whole different type of racism happening in the south in the north. Yeah. But Northerners, let’s say, like Harlem or Brooklyn, would they say there’s no racism? Absolutely not. But it’s different. And so it’s different in Canada, right here. I don’t want to say it’s, it’s watered down. But you have to take into consideration that we’re 10% of your population. And whereas he might have eight to 11%. So depending on what city it is, by population were like at three, four, you know? So, if you dumped a whole lot more people, we probably have a whole lot problem.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. Do you think that the the American audiences were just super curious about what it was like being black in Canada?

Natasha Morris
Yeah. And it’s because their getting the same narratives, like everyone’s to just there, rosy cheeks. You know, how can I help you? What can I do? I’m gonna drive you to there, sure I’ve got nothing better to do, let’s go. So the assumption is like, zero problem, zero crime, zero black population.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah, I guess I guess, you know, as Canadians we get a lot of American media. And so we see a lot of what’s happening there and get, like zero. Canadian media. Yeah. They don’t even think about us until like, there’s a Canadian there and then they’re probably trying to figure out like, what is Canada?

Natasha Morris
Yeah. And from Toronto, it’s like Drake. Really, like really. Like okay, Drake. Yeah. Or Caribanna. Oh yeah, there’s this it’s hard to to explain. There’s no reference point,

Phil Rickaby
true.

Natasha Morris
And I go, and I’m like, I’m not coming here saying like, racism in Canada is so unbearable and terrible and I wish I was here or there. It’s like everybody in life, you got to keep moving and you take the good with the bad. I love Canada. I love where I live. I love the healthcare. I love the multiculturalism. And I think that for me, and I’ll give you a good example, like my sister, she’s like, I could care less about talking about Black Lives Matter and all this like it’s just draining, it’s distracting, and people are getting, letting too much get to them. So an example would be like the h&m Monkey t shirt scandal. I may think, well, if my little sister wants to wear like a monkey t shirt, she’s looking at it as a monkey, or any other child that connects two monkeys, like Three little monkeys jumping on the bed. Why would I prescribe and have her think that’s tied to racism? That’s somebody else’s problem is not yours, and you shouldn’t be hesitant to embrace it. And that’s what I mean of sometimes. You might feel offend- or someone’s calling you out. Your name is drop an N bomb. How much power do you give that person by responding? So like, I know I’m not that, so I don’t know who the hell you talking to, but now it’s like how much does it mean to me? And why now we get in a fight. We have a brawl, you know, maybe the police are involved a whole slew of events. Because this person knows that’s going to bother me. But to me, I’m just like, damn what you say. But now when you say you know black people aren’t allowed here or shouldn’t be able to do this or we’re gonna sterilise like manner. You know? That’s a whole other systemic issue that I’m like yet that needs to be torn down. Yeah, rip to shreds immediately. But, as it would say, few bad apples. But I think he will know it’s like, even like cat calling women. It’s like, do I wanna, I don’t want to give you the time of my day. No.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. So as you get ready to perform this show again in Toronto, and it’s such an updated newer version, what are you most looking forward to about about getting this on stage in front of an audience?

Natasha Morris
Well, the bells and whistles, From two chairs on stage, to working with a design team, having like set and costumes, and lighting, and sound is exciting. And something I’ve always wanted to do, I think having the task of directing in the round, for 180 seat, whatever main space adds the pressure, so like, “are you directing, Natasha?” let’s see. Let’s find out, like three weeks of rehearsal, how the ideas pulled together, but I think I have a strong vision for The show and it was important for me to direct even as the writer so yeah, if I’m like I’m I’m interested in the reviews, I’m interested in the talkbacks, and how people receive the work if it’s dead quiet like Lord might i mean I, I want all the criticism because I am that critic, every show. It’s very rare just like your favourite is how many classic albums you can’t have 100 favourite classica there’s like the top five for a reason. And I hope at least for one person is a top five and it can be a bottom five for 100 people but that’s, that’s interesting for me to know. I’m telling a story, how do you receive it?

Phil Rickaby
The other productions were you directing that as well. is this?

Natasha Morris
Yes, yes. Yeah. But there weren’t as many resources going into it. I mean, we’re like rehearsing in, like public space in the park, or in a few days a week for a few hours. So I was like, I’m just gonna focus on making sure we have the text, right, some blocking. And let’s go because we got two chairs, like let’s not let’s not be in denial about that. And I think that has helped knowing that. We’ve had other people just drop in not knowing anything about the show. They’re like, Ooh, there’s a lot of content here. And a lot of people said, like, Can I take this home to read? I want to make sure I got everything. And that’s a bit of the fast pace of like sketch the sketch. Like, but that’s how it feels to me when I’m writing it or directing it.

Phil Rickaby
Yeah. Natasha, thank you so much.

Natasha Morris
Thank you.