Culture & Conversation

Agog about Gollywog

Though decades separate Bonnie Farmer’s two plays, her new Gollywog has the makings of a hit. Born in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, Farmer came to Montreal at the age of two when her mother took a job as a cook in a convent. The family only lived there a year or so, Farmer explains. “They weren’t expecting a cook with a baby in tow. Our room was right off the kitchen and I kept getting into things. It was dangerous. I remember these beautiful marble floors. I remember seeing the nuns in their pyjamas.”

That’s not all this award-winning children’s author, playwright, avid crafter, and elementary school teacher remembers. She also vividly recalls what it was like being a the only black child in the class when the teacher had them read books about Black Sambo. “Not that there was anything wrong with the books themselves,” she points out. “The problem was the pictures.”

Originally published in 1899, The Story of Little Black Sambo was part of a small-format book series called The Dumpy Books for Children. Sambo, a boy from Southern India, encounters four hungry tigers. To placate and keep them from eating him, Sambo ends up surrendering his colourful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella. The vain cats, each wearing something of the boy’s, chase each other round a tree until they’re reduced to a pool of melted butter. Sambo gets his clothes back and his mother uses the butter for pancakes. The story was a children’s favourite for over fifty years, until the word ‘sambo’ was deemed a racial slur, and the illustrations objectionable. The book has been considerably revised since then.

According to Farmer, Sambo “is really a hero. He outsmarts tigers. But the kids in class would titter and look at me. You felt singled out.”

Racist iconography is central to Farmer’s new play, Gollywog, which had a staged reading as part of the Black Theatre Workshop’s Discovery Series on Monday, February 13th. Actors Lucinda Davis, Nouella Grimes, Alexandria Haber, Christian Paul, and Brett Watson were directed by Quincy Armorer, who took the stage at the outset to explain what the gollywog was. He mentioned, too, that it’s a part of a Black history with which many people, particularly younger people, are unfamiliar.

The Gollywog is a blackfaced African American caricature created in the late 1800s. Since the 1960s, the doll has become the subject of a great deal of controversy, with Europeans attempting to decide whether it is a valuable cultural artefact or a racist insult. ~ BlackTheatre Workshop website

Farmer described the gollywog doll’s key features, which were nearly identical to Little Black Sambo’s: black skin, kinky hair, goggly white eyes, and an oversized, toothy grin. Gollywog’s main character, Mavis Daniels, came of age, as did Farmer herself, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “It was the time of Black Power,” she says, “and so Mavis never expected to see those racist images like the gollywog or Little Black Sambo again.” Yet gradually, Mavis starts seeing the hoary stereotype at every turn, among toys, books, billboards, even gingerbread men.

The play opens near Christmas. Mavis’s divorced daughter Victoria is back at school, studying nursing and living with Mavis, her young son Jamal in tow. The apartment superintendent, Jeff Cochrane, their neighbour and Victoria’s childhood companion, is gradually revealed as a ne’er-do-well white sorta supremacist. Which doesn’t stop a romance with Victoria from developing. Mavis is touchy and outspoken; there are incidents on the bus and at Jamal’s school. She starts seeing racist behaviour and imagery everywhere. Is Mavis losing it? This is the world of Gollywog.

“It’s up to the audience to decide if Mavis is crazy,” Farmer says, though she herself doesn’t think so. “I’ve seen a number of ads recently that really do put me in mind of the gollywog. Every so often, there’s an instant where white people don black face here. I think a lot of the racism in Canada is unconscious, so I’m trying to bring that across in Jeff’s character. I’m hoping the audience will see the other side of these images and the [racist] words that are said. I think in the US, people are more aware. They still use the words, but they’re not doing it unconsciously.”

It’s probably a question of numbers, she continues. “There aren’t as many black people here. It isn’t as much ‘in your face.’ Here, racism is directed against Blacks but, even more, against natives.” (More interesting discussion on this question can be found in this article by Clarence Baynes.)

Farmer wrote the first scene of Gollywog in the winter of 2010; several more came during workshops she took with local playwright Colleen Curran, who was also instrumental in helping Farmer develop her first play. That was Irene and Lillian Forever, with Sonya Biddle and Carole Anderson. It was a 1986 Quebec Drama Festival finalist and winner of Best Direction for the late Lorena Gale. Not bad for a newbie.

Farmer also wrote a play for her Master’s thesis in Concordia University’s creative writing program. Ike’s Fiddle is set in Nova Scotia and is about two brothers and their rivalry over the one of one of them. It’s never been produced (but something makes me think this might change in the near future).

Last May, Caribbean playwright David Edgecombe mentored Farmer and Gollywog at the Black Theatre Workshop. Edgecombe is “internationally known for several plays, including Strong Currents and Coming Home to Roost. I’d seen his stuff 30 years ago. I had a playbill from one of the plays—” it was Strong Currents—“and I brought it for him to sign.” Edgecombe was a founding member of Black Theatre Workshop and also served as resident playwright/director there.

He offered her “really positive feedback,” so she kept sending him material, until the play was 76 pages and 10 scenes in length. That’s when Farmer discovered that the rule of thumb she’d been going by–that one page of script equalled a minute of performance–was true for film scripts, not stage plays. Gollywog was already a full-length theatre piece some two hours long!

When I spoke with her several days before the final rehearsals, Bonnie was clearly experiencing butterflies; she was excited, nervous, and altogether inspiring.

The play itself was extremely well received. It never dragged, was clear as a bell, tied up all loose ends, and provoked lots and lots of laughs, and all this despite the total absence of sets or props.

Nouella Grimes, doing the heavy lifting as Mavis, was outstanding—especially during the police station monologue–despite overheating in wig, turtleneck and sweater, while Lucinda Davis nailed Victoria’s more self-involved worldview. Alexandria Haber and Christian Paul played the school librarian and school principal to maximum hilarity. PMy sole cavil concerns Victoria’s boyfriend Jeff’s character—making him white a supremacist was a tad extreme, but his layabout behaviour and blame of others for his own failings—notably his drug and booze induced laziness—was bang on.

As the evening drew to a close and we rose from the not-ready-for-prime-theatre-time seating, I asked Bonnie how she felt. Redundant, really, because the answer was writ large on her face: “Great!”


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