By Anupa Mistry
I grew up in Brampton, that far-off big-little city of Jamaicans, Punjabis and Newfoundlanders. If you rolled with the cultural collision, it was the best place to grow up. (If you couldn’t, you moved?) Brampton is a happy-weird demographic accident of the GTA. Where rainbow packs of friends are common and ethnicity figures prominently in your day-to-day interactions but isn’t necessarily a problem so much as a curiosity to be explored.
After five years in Toronto, nothing’s brought me closer to that feeling than Pomme Is French For Apple. In August I spent an hour cackling with laughter – like you only do with your closest – when I caught the show at Best of Fringe. Its mandate is delivered plain-spoken within the first few minutes by stars/creators Liza Paul and Bahia Watson: “Pomme is French for Apple – and yardie for pussy.”
THESE ARE MY PEOPLE. I love this story – about sex and women and fools you can only suck your teeth at – the way it’s told, the feelings it inspires and the girls who tell it. I have not laughed harder this year; nor have I been more impressed at what is going on in this city and who, despite what Toronto Life or the Worthy 30 tells me, is relevant.
Pomme’s been in production for two years and is so good I’m going to watch it again, this Sunday, September 23 at the Drake Hotel where it runs as part of the Just For Laughs Festival. Tickets ($15) will be available at the door. But first, I just had to talk to Bahia and Liza about brown girls, jokes and theatre in Toronto.
How did you guys meet? Liza: We were both doing an artistic residency at d’bi.young anitafrika’s theatre. We were all working on solo pieces in the program and most people’s pieces had a tinge of sadness – but mine wasn’t and Bahia’s wasn’t either, we had jokes in ours. So after the program ended, in September of 2009, we decided to keep writing together.
Bahia: I was working on a one-woman show called In Search of Shaniqua Jenkins and Liza was working on her show called Everybody Wan Catch A Screw and it was just this vibes thing. We didn’t know what we were working on or toward but thought we’d write and set some deadlines.
Were you both already involved in performance and theatre?
L: When I started I was the associate producer at Soulpepper and d’bi approached me before she opened her theatre to do some PR. My whole job was making contracts and writing emails but I was in such a creative environment so I was like “I think I want to tell stories too, but I don’t know what that looks like.” I wasn’t able to articulate what I wanted beyond that. So I told d’bi, and that was a terrifying email to send because, living in the administrative world there’s artists and administrators and the two shall never meet. Until then I had no experience with writing or performing – nor was I sure that’s what I wanted to do. All I knew was that I wanted to write something and maybe it would be funny.
B: I didn’t go to theatre school but that didn’t reflect how much I knew or cared. The way d’bi works is so interesting because it’s a great, safe space for getting to know yourself as an artist. It’s very liberating.
That sounds like something that is unique to the “theatre world.” Does that exist in Toronto?
L: If it does I don’t know about it.
B: It was a very unique space in the people it brought together and the feeling.
Pomme is basically a show about pumpum, which is kind of a brilliant idea, but how did you get to that point?
L: I kind of feel this theme chose us. When I wrote the one-woman piece it was my experience of having a dry spell, like, “This one sucks I can’t go with him, that one I don’t want to do that,” and the pum’s perspective of “What is happening?!” And that’s very much my family: we get together and my auntie is like lifting up my skirt like “Yuh have on panty?” It’s where I come from. So it wasn’t a stretch for me to be like, “Oh this is what my pum thinks.”
B: When I saw her show I loved it, it was fun and funny. I don’t normally talk about my pum, y’know, so writing was really just jokes to ourselves, laughing, riffing about farting and stuff.
L: Even though on the surface it’s so rooted in pumpum, there’s actually a lot happening. It’s explicit but not vulgar or disgusting, but it’s the truth. Maybe what’s crazy about it is that no one is saying these things out loud…
Right, I think THAT is what it is.
L: Maybe if I had children it would be a different story or if I came from some war-ravaged story…but I don’t, this is what I’ve been living through. ((CHUUUUCH GLOBE STORY))
It was obviously important then, from the language to the stories, to make it feel like a thoroughly West Indian production? L: I needed to be able to tell stories my family would like or understand. Not to knock what other people are doing but West Indian work in this city is atrocious. It’s bad production quality, bad writing, bad acting – but it doesn’t have to be. It takes as much effort to do a bad job as it does to do a good job when you think about it.
Maybe it’s the resources or experiences but like, your poster doesn’t have to have pictures and red, yellow and green all over it. For me, that’s offensive. It conjures a certain image. There’s no reason, in a city like this where people are doing amazing stuff and there are so many West Indian people that a show shouldn’t be of good quality? Seeing d’bi’s one-woman show Bloodclaat – hearing the lights go down and Baby Cham blaring through the speakers – was like, “Oh, you can do this?” A woman could stand up there, talk patois for an hour to people who may or may not understand what she’s saying but that’s the story.
B: Also sometimes things are funnier in that West Indian intonation! There’s a big role that language plays. d’bi’s workshop really helped me explore speaking in patois. My mom is Guyanese and I’m from Winnipeg so I had reservations. I didn’t know if I was allowed.
This show is soooooo Toronto to me for all of those reasons. L: I think that too. Because so many people here have that cross-cultural experience. One of our best friends is Persian but she understands the whole thing. That’s what we’re going for. If you don’t get that or you’re not into it, go see War Horse. There are a bunch of other things for you.
B: Even Shakespeare is a dialect you have to train your ear to understand. So you can understand something else. There was a woman who came up to us like, “I love that word from your show, I found myself saying it all the time. It’s “CHA!”” And to us that’s hilarious and amazing.
Are you surprised at how much dudes love it? L: I was. We made it specific, because in specificity you find universality but we didn’t want it to be this man-bashing thing.
B: But the way they love it, yeah. I never thought they’d hate it but it’s nice to see. Our intention has never been to divide.
On the surface it can seem divisive, if you play into the allusions of The Vagina Monologues or whatever. L: We’ve had dudes being like, “I have a lot to learn. I gotta bring my boys to this,” and girls saying “I’ve got to bring my husband.” And dudes saying, “Yo, I gotta treat my woman right. I just wanna eat some pussy, you know?” It doesn’t make people feel dry. They feel motivated to try a ting.
You mentioned you’re basically workshopping as you go, that this process is unorthodox for theatre because you sped up the whole development. But it’s so good you get people coming back to see it. Does that happen in theatre? B: I’ve never seen a show twice.
L: It’s happened everywhere we’ve done the show. People come back the next day, buy another ticket and bring their friends. Also what’s interesting is how diverse the audience is.
That is super cool too. I think there are way too many people who think theatre world is for old white folks. B: Yeah, I love that people who don’t normally feel at home in this space are coming to the show. Because theatre isn’t only for rich people or white people or this thing where you have to sit quietly and be bored. But it’s for people that don’t get to see their stories on stage. That’s a big thing for me: expanding the story of the black girl.
L: There is no space for nuance so it’s almost intentional for us to not perpetuate the bullshit that’s out there for people of colour. We want to create a vibe: it’s like a party, come catch some jokes have some punch and you can go about your life. And also, if all my Jamaican cousins are sitting there and there’s an old white guy next to them, they are sharing the same thing and get to be there together. We’re not doing anything to be like, “Sorry, we need to make sure this white man gets it.”
B: People get treated like they’re stupid but they’re not. They’re bright and want to be engaged. So much exists out there that is about sedating minds. People don’t even know what they like and then they come to something and they really feel it.