In his native Ghana, Obaaberima means “girlyboy”. In Tawiah M’Carthy’s show of the same name, he explores that sometimes derogatory term in themes of gender, sexuality and race through the eyes of Agyeman, a young Ghanaian who recounts his journey from confused childhood in West Africa to adulthood in Canada.
But while some of the experiences in Obaaberima may parallel his own journey from Ghana to Toronto, the characters in M’Carthy’s play are fictional.
“The experience of moving to a different country and trying to find out who you are sexuality-wise from a country where homosexuality isn’t approved of is similar to mine,” says M’Carthy. “I wouldn’t say it is based on my life, but some of the emotional struggles that Agyeman goes through are very real to me.”
Originally inspired by a photo of a model in a red dress with one of her feet painted red, there was something in the image that stuck with M’Carthy.
“Years ago I saw photo that photograph of the woman and I thought of a young boy standing in front of his mother’s mirror wearing red high heels,” explains M’Carthy. “The play began from a short poem I wrote in 2008 about that boy, but I always knew it was something that I wanted to explore more.”
That 12-line poem became a 20-minute theatre piece at the 2008 Rhubarb Festival in Toronto, and has since been worked into the current full-length version that has gone on to receive three Toronto theatre awards in 2013, including outstanding production.
Taking place inside a Canadian prison on the eve of Agyeman’s release, the setting not only becomes a metaphor for his coming out, but is also an allegory for the traditional Ghanaian “abadinto” or “outdooring” ceremony.
“In Ghana you would keep a child indoors for the first seven days of their lives, and if they survive, they are taken outside, introduced to the community and given a name,” explains M’Carthy. “In the same way this becomes the first time Agyeman is introduced as his true self.”
Partly dealing with an exploration of his character’s masculine and feminine sides, M’Carthy says finding the right balance between the two was not an easy task.
“How does this young boy growing up in Ghana, where there is no context for homosexuality, find himself?” asks M’Carthy. “When I first created the piece in 2009 there were only three characters, and as we re-worked the play we knew we needed to introduce other characters to give that balance more clarity.”
A multi-disciplinary work that combines storytelling with music and dance, M’Carthy says the need to explore his story through the three genres grew out of his passions. “The music becomes a character and the movement becomes part of the story,” he says. “I wanted it to be a balance between the two worlds, part of the struggle is finding himself.”
Having now received critical acclaim and some commercial success in Canada, M’Carthy hopes that one day he will be able to return to Ghana to perform Obaaberima.
“It is a conversation that needs to be had,” he says of his of birth country’s ongoing resistance to homosexuality. “There is a whole new generation of artists, African writers that are open to the conversation. It would be great to take that conversation back home, and I am hopeful it will happen sometime in the near future.”
Obaaberima plays The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) March 24 – April 4. Visit http://thecultch.com for tickets and information.