Obaaberima a graceful study of gendered performance
Agyeman, a young man from Ghana, appears before the tall imposing bars of a prison hall. His posture upright, firm yet delicate, and his orange jumpsuit askew—one pant leg pulled up to his thigh, one bare shoulder exposed. The confidence of his stance belies the surrounding setting for he has a story to tell.
Tawiah M'carthy's Obaaberima explores the upbringing of a young Ghanaian struggling to find his queer identity, both at home and after his immigration to Canada. M'carthy is captivating on stage, effortlessly transitioning from the various characters in his world.
But it's the unique and layered story, about the queer immigrant perspective yes but also which considers the nature of our performative selves, that makes this such a strong solo work.
From a young age, Agyeman uncovers his feminine qualities (called Obaa in his mother tongue), which exist in seeming opposition to his masculine side (Oberima). The neighbourhood tailor brings out the latter aspects, while a young classmate Nana Esi loves him for his manly frame. These dalliances end in only more confusion in a country where it's criminal to have same-sex relationships.
When Agyeman comes to Canada he faces the questions he hoped would be left at home—first with a woman he intends to wed and then with a man he eventually moves in with.
The storyteller is the female side of Agyeman he names Sibongile. She has complete control of the playing space. With a wave of her hand she cues lights and sound, conjuring up the scenes and characters that inhabit the tale. M'carthy creates interesting parallels between Agyeman's sexual awakening during his youth and the relationships be pursues in adulthood.
One of the most nuanced themes is a consideration of the role of performance itself in the shaping of identity. As Agyeman explores his two genders, it's inevitably the performative qualities (dress, speech, gesture) that mark the change. Acting straight is also the means by which he's able to mask his sexuality upon arrival to Canada.
The theme is taken further when Sibongile acknowledges that the figures in Agyeman's life have become a part of him. It's a clever doubling of the format of the solo show in which the playwright is working. The playwright too is a part of the characters he creates.
Director Evalyn Parry draws out these characterizations on an empty set, devoid of any props or set pieces. It allows for M'carthy to showcase a collection of unique characters alongside a dynamic soundscape performed by Kobena Aquaa-Harrison.
Like Waawaate Fobister's Agokwe, Buddies once again gives voice to a thrilling storyteller and performer in Tawiah M'carthy.
Obaaberima, written and performed by Tawiah M'carthy, runs until October 7 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.