While the upcoming production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat may have been sidetracked by a conversation around diversity in Vancouver’s theatre community, for Stephen Lobo it really was all about finding a piece that spoke to him.
“I have been a big fan of the playwright since being at theatre school in London,” says Lobo, who is best known for his television work on Continuum and Artic Air. “This was a guy that writes from a place of passion, and is so visceral and raw.”
Looking for something that excited him as an actor, Lobo eventually landed on Guirgis’ play.
“I started reading stuff and looking for something contemporary, something that excited me,” he says. “A few pages in, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I got lots of encouragement and took a leap of faith and secured the rights.”
Approaching a number of friends to join him on the project, Lobo was actually a little surprised when they all readily agreed to participate, including director Brian Markinson. Initially shopping the property around to a few local theatre companies, they eventually found a home at the Firehall Arts Centre, who are co-producing the play with the newly formed Haberdashery Theatre Co.
Set in New York, The Motherf**ker with the Hat is the sometimes blisteringly funny story of ex-con and addict Jackie, who is determined to stay clean and get his life back on track. His efforts are challenged though by his girlfriend, herself an addict, who he suspects is cheating on him.
“Stephen plays Jackie who is recently out of prison after spending time for selling narcotics from his apartment,” explains Markinson. “In recovery for three years, we meet him on his best day of his life; he just got a job, and things are really starting to look up. He discovers a man’s hat on the breakfast table and confronts his girlfriend with it, and it sets the play on a rocket.”
With the hat on the table helping to explain the play’s provocative title, both Markinson and Lobo see the use of ‘mofo’ as a draw, rather than a potential turn-off for audiences.
“You know you’re going to see something fresh, not precious, not preachy,” says Lobo. “It is balls to the wall, exciting, and visceral theatre.”
“Besides,” adds Markinson with a laugh, “the people that find the title a barrier are not necessarily those we would want to come see the show.”
Of course the controversy that has dogged the production over the casting of non-Latinx actors in roles is difficult to ignore. And while Lobo remains focused on the show, Markinson was more than willing to take on the concerns from Vancouver’s Latinx theatre community.
“We were all initially very surprised when this all came to light,” he says. “We were just a bunch of friends that got together to do a play, and when we went to the Firehall with the play it was already cast. Once these issues came up and we were aware of them, we did everything we could to address them.”
According to Markinson that process included open auditions, which resulted in one of the roles going to a Latinx actor after the original cast member left the production.
“We all have a vested interest in diversity and people that know us know we are all about diversity,” he says. “I am open to sitting down and having a substantial conversation about diversity in this city at some later time, but for now we have moved on.”
Playwright Guirgis recently joined the diversity conversation surrounding this production as well, giving tacit support to the company, tweeting on January 9 to Markinson: “Thanks for doing the play. KICK SOME BIG TIME ASS!”. This was a day after Guirgis says he heard about the controversy via a Facebook post.
Guirgis went one step further on January 11, by tweeting an excerpt on casting from his notes in the published version of his play. In it, he writes: “The characters Jackie, Veronica, and Cousin Julio are meant to be Puerto Rican. But if you get cast in the play, and you’re not Puerto Rican, don’t worry about trying to ‘be’ Puerto Rican. Just focus on living truthfully and fully through the circumstances of the play and of your character.”
Lobo seems to have embraced the playwright’s advice: “I have so little in common with these characters,” he admits, “but I find the truth and ground myself in my scene partners and the words. Even though I have this beautiful and blessed life and we are worlds apart, there is part of me that thinks I am a heck of a lot closer to these characters than I would like to think.”
For Markinson part of what has resonated with him comes from the venue in which they will perform, and even while the Firehall’s Downtown Eastside location is a continent away from the play’s New York setting, the correlation to the play’s subject matter is not lost on him or the rest of the company.
“Part of the mandate with Haberdashery is to produce issue driven work and part of what we are doing, depending on the related issue, is giving back,” he says. “In this case it is dealing with substance abuse and we are in the process of vetting a number of possibilities for a financial contribution to a program, or treatment centre, or halfway house in the Downtown Eastside.”
The Motherf**ker with the Hat plays the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St, Vancouver) January 16-30. Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.