With the Vancouver International Fringe Festival arriving at a venue near you shortly (9-20 September 2009) GayVancouver.Net (Gay Vancouver Online) set out to discover some of the queer content at this year’s Festival. What we discovered is that what we might be lacking in numbers we are certainly not lacking in Fringe-style content. Take Berend McKenzie‘s upcoming show nggrfg as an example. We caught up with Berend just before he headed off to the Edmonton Fringe Festival to premiere this new piece and talked to him about his show, growing up in Northern Alberta and working with director Denis Simpson.
Tell us about your one-man show nggrfg that you’re bringing to the Vancouver Fringe Festival. What can an audience expect?
nggrfg is my new show about growing up as a straight white woman. I am kidding. nggrfg is about my experiences dealing with the words niggr and fg, my exposure to the words and the effect they have had on my life. There are four vignettes.
That’s quite the title! Did the title drive the content or the content the title?
The title definitely drove the content, all the way. It came about when Michael Richards called his audience at the Laugh Factory in L.A. nggrs, and Anne Coulter called John Edwards a fggot at a Conservative fundraiser. The words nggr and fg flooded all the news channels, especially CNN. The conversation was centered around banning both words. The talking heads debating the issue, would use the phrase “the N word” when saying the word nggr, but the word fggot was used over and over and over again. The anchors were doing the same thing so in a nine minute spot I heard the word fggot used about 20 times. I wondered why it was not okay to say nggr but more than acceptable to say the word fggot repeatedly.
At first I was like, yeah, these words should be banned! They are bad words! Let’s get rid of them! Then I thought about all the times I myself was called nggr and/or fg. What would it mean if I could not use the words to tell my story? What would happen to all the other blacks and GLBTs who died while these words were being hurled at them? If we banned the words nggr and fg would that erase their stories too?
When I started writing I was not even sure how I felt about the words nggr and fg. I knew I didn’t like nggr. I have re-appropriated fg and us it all the time. I knew that I had trouble even saying the word nggr. So I set out on a path of self-discovery about how I felt about the words.
It has been very liberating. I feel humbled by the experience. I have come to see my own internalized homophobia and racism. I have gone full circle, from disliking the words to respecting them and feeling grateful to and for them. Without these words, as hurtful as they can be, they were a big part in making me the man I am today. I think I turned out okay despite them and because of them. Wow that was a long answer!
In the show description you talk about the “minefield of straight white Canada”. What do you mean by “minefield”?
I was adopted into a predominantly white family. My father was an RCMP officer and we moved to Northern Alberta so he could get better positions. I was the only black child to live in these small towns at the time and I may even have been the first. My mother was bleach blonde and gorgeous. I was dark skinned with a big puffy afro. People would slow down on Main Street to point at us. Many doubted that I was her son and joked that she had had a torrid affair with the milkman or something. Often on the school ground I would be called anything from nggr, to Kunta Kinte, to the female black slave name of Kizzy.
I knew at an early age that I was gay and tried to hide it as much as possible. I felt as if I was the only one. I probably was not. I would hear on a regular basis the word fg used to describe someone in a negative way. I would sink inside myself when I heard it and I prayed to God that he would turn me into a straight man.
Canada’s face has changed a lot since I was a child. It is getting more diverse. Vancouver is a melting pot of different colors and sexual orientations. Anybody who knows me, knows that there is no way I could fit and stay in the closet. I am gay, gay, gay. I felt that even in Edmonton I had to watch how I acted. I moved here because I knew it was safer to be the authentic me.
You’re taking the show to the Edmonton Fringe before Vancouver. Is this the premiere of the show? If so, why did you choose Edmonton to premiere it? If not, where did the show first premiere?
Yes Edmonton will be the premier of nggrfg. I chose Edmonton for a multitude of reasons: it is where I went to theatre-college, my producing partners are there and I have many friends in and out of the theatre community in Edmonton. Edmonton’s Fringe is the second largest Fringe in the world and is an exciting place to be and to have a show running. People are serious Fringers there, mapping out precisely which shows they are going to. The Critics can be tough but if a show does well in Edmonton chances are good it will do well elsewhere.
Tell us about working with Dennis Simpson as director. Was it all sunshine and polka dots? No seriously, Dennis is a pretty accomplished actor, what was he like to work with as director?
I could not have dreamed of working with a more gracious, intelligent, gentle, loving soul as Denis Simpson. I have wanted to work with him for a long time and I really hit the jackpot when he said yes to the project. He has performed his own one-man show Denis Anyone? so he knows what it takes to make it through an hour long performance on your own. He approached the work and the words with great respect. He felt as I did, that we needed to earn the right to use the title. We earned that right about two weeks ago. I think that nggrfg is going to open the door wider for him as a director. That is my hope for him.
We’re told by the Vancouver Fringe that nggrfg may be one of only two shows this year with a gay/queer theme. I know we were pretty shocked – does that put any extra pressure on you to deliver the goods to a queer audience or do you consider yourself lucky in not having to compete with other shows?
I was shocked when I heard that too and a bit disappointed. I don’t really look at the Fringe as a competition to get audiences. The last Fringe I did had about six or seven queer themed plays. Get Off the Cross, Mary was a real hit and many of the other queer shows did very well too. There is enough for all. I think that if a show has strong writing, strong direction and a good cast and crew it will do well. I feel of course, that being one of only a couple queer themed plays in the Fringe is an advantage for me too, and all those who go to the Fringe to see queer theatre, I hope will come to see nggrfg.
What attracted you about doing the show at the Edmonton and Vancouver Fringe Festivals? Did you write the show specifically with that in mind?
I have done about ten Edmonton Fringe Festivals since being in college. I love the Edmonton Fringe. Vancouver has a smaller Fringe but it is still a lot or fun. Vancouver is my home and I like my friends and family to be able to see the work I have been talking about ad nauseam. They can finally say, “okay, shut up already, I’ve seen you bloody show!” The Fringe is a relatively cheap way for an artist with no money to produce art. It is a gift really and I try and take advantage of it as much as possible.
Your last show at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, Get Off The Cross, Mary, was a hit. Did you deliberately go out to write another show to top it?
No, I did not write nggrfg to top Get Off the Cross, Mary. I did, however, want to grow up in my writing style. I believe I have done that. There is only one or two swear words in nggrfg and no sex talk. GOTCM was an amazing experience. It was my first show. I really learned what it took to write a full-length play with that show. I worked with some of Vancouver’s and Edmonton’s most amazing actors and stage managers. Trevor Anderson, the director of both productions, is like a kindred spirit. GOTCM allowed me to get my “potty mouth” on. Puppets can say anything, and I mean anything, and I love them and the show for that.
nggrfg is a completely different type of story – it is grounded in reality and I wanted to give the words the due respect they both deserve.
Tell us about Guys in Disguise.
Darrin Hagen and his partner in life and work Kevin Hendricks make up Guys in Disguise. They have been doing cross dressing performances since 1987. We are also very close friends. Darrin is my writing mentor and has supported and guided me on my writing journey. He was the Dramaturge on nggrfg and produced GOTCM. They really do know what they are doing when it comes to publicizing a show.
Darrin is an award winning playwright, composer, author, actor and producer. Kevin is an award-winning producer. They are fearless in their Queerness and I love them for it.
What’s next for Berend McKenzie?
Time with my boyfriend Grant. Time with my family and friends. Cleaning my apartment. Playing Xbox till I can’t see. Catching up on my favorite tv shows like Dextor, Weeds, Mad Men and True Blood. Maybe going to school.
I plan on touring nggrfg around the world. I don’t know how that is going to happen, but I am envisioning it right now and leaving the details up to the universe. I see me performing it in schools too. If people like the show please talk about it and help as many as possible to get in on the conversation surrounding these two very important words.
Vancouver Fringe Festival
Waterfront Theatre, Granville Island
Thursday, September 10 @ 10:25pm
Saturday, September 12 @ 6:45pm
Monday, September 14 @ 7:40pm
Wednesday, September 16 @ 8:30pm
Friday, September 18 @ 10:35pm
Sunday, September 20 @ 8:45pm
A riotous and poignant one-man tour-de-force about being black and gay in a world that doesn’t have room for either. nggrfg is four revealing and hilarious vignettes that tell the story of a queer black kid finding his way through the minefield of straight white Canada. From the creator of the smash fringe hit Get Off The Cross, Mary.