Vancouver actor, director, producer and writer Omari Newton admits he was in a particularly dark time in his life when Obsidian Theatre approached him to write a piece for the Toronto company’s 21 Black Futures project.
“We are already in the midst of a global pandemic and I was struggling with depression, just existential malaise as I am sure a lot of people were,” says Newton by phone during a break from his virtual Black History Month national school tour with Overture with the Arts.
“Then, in the midst of that, the George Floyd video went viral and triggered all these thoughts about the disposability of Black men and Black bodies, and how we’re often treated by law enforcement and the media,” he continues.
Coupled with the racial fallout from Donald Trump’s presidency south of the border, as Newton struggled with writing his piece within the 21 Black Futures central question of “what is the future of Blackness?”, he felt particularly hopeless.
“Do I have hope that we can rid ourselves of white supremacist structures of power and that we will reach a post-racial state? No, I absolutely have no hope,” says Newton.
It was within his sense of pessimism that led Newton to write the hip hop theatre piece 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel.
Set in the year 2050, 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel tells the story of a Black engineer for the Canadian government who, inspired by civil rights era activists, commandeers a military spacecraft to flee Earth in search of a place where Black people can live peacefully.
“It felt like the only time we would truly find peace was starting a new world, leaving and finding a new place that’s untainted by the ills of condemnation,” Newton says. “Anti-black racism and general xenophobia are deeply ingrained in people, and I don’t think it will ever fully be out of it.”
With a title inspired by the broken promise of “forty acres and a mule” following the emancipation of slaves in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, Newton also sees 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel as a call for restitution.
“Reparations need to be paid for the damage done,” says Newton. “And in the future, instead of forty acres and a mule, it is 40 parsecs and some fuel.”
Akin to spoken word, 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel conjures powerful images through its performance by Canadian hip hop artist Dan-e-o (aka Daniel Faraldo) and directed by filmmaker Lucius Dechausay.
“I feel really blessed to have been paired with Dan-e-o,” says Newton. “When I heard he was available for this project, I jumped at the chance to work with him. I am a big fan.”
Written by playwright Omari Newton and performed by hip hop artist Dan-e-o, this is a monodrama that is as intricate in its lyrical wordplay as it is in its ideologies. As a father, I spend every day trying to create a better Black future for my kids and truly as a closet celestial nerd and huge hip hop fan, if this place exists and you gotta rhyme your way onto the ship, I might be the first in line. One thing that is certain. The capacity of Black innovation and resilience is limitless and if there is a place for us in this universe, we will find it.
From director Lucius Dechausay’s notes for 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel
One in a series of filmed monodramas commissioned from 21 multigenerational Black playwrights across Canada, directed by 21 Black directors and performed by 21 Black actors, 21 Black Futures was the first major project from Obsidian Theatre’s artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu.
In partnership with CBC Arts, 21 Black Futures will be available on the free CBC Gem streaming service through February. Released in three parts, Newton’s 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel premieres as part of the final seven on February 26. Visit cbc.ca for more information.