“Sal Capone” Play Draws Inspiration From Villanueva Tragedy [Interview with playwright Omari Newton]

The Fredy Villanueva police shooting sent a ripple effect across Canada and sparked a deep reflexion on discrimination and abuse of authority towards people of colour. This was five years ago, an there is still  misconceptions and debate surrounding race relations in Canada, a topic many would rather ignore.

“How come this is still happening?”, was the question on our minds, after the tragic event took place as tensions between the police and youth in Montreal-North hit an all-time high.

Omari Newton, reputed actor, playwright, and former MC for Jazz-Hop collective Kobayashi, was asking himself the same question regarding racism and other forms of institutionalized intolerance like sexism and homophobia, which are also very present in hip hop.

“Growing up as a Black guy in Montreal, I had definitely experienced incidents with the police, like being followed at night. It’s a really dehumanizing feeling, to feel that you’re a suspect, that you’re up to no good. If people look at you that way, you start acting sketchy. You end up acting more weird and give them a reason to follow you”, explains the theatre and film actor turned playwright.

Omari Newton, writer of "Sal Capone, The Lamentable Tragedy Of"

Omari Newton, writer of “Sal Capone, The Lamentable Tragedy Of”

The actor was living in Vancouver when he heard about the shooting, and this compelled him to write a play that would reflect the reality of urban youth across Canada, based on his own experiences in both cities. While acting at Urban Ink Productions, where he met play director Diana Roberts, he wrote Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy Of, which tells the story of a young hip hop group that faces the shooting of one of its members by the police. It touches on sensitive issues of today, such as the isolation of minorities, the distrust of authority and relations between urban youth and the police. Through this conversation, with actors coming from many backgrounds, it accomplishes a rare feat in theatre, television and cinema, by carrying a strong political message about racism and representing minority voices.

Integrating different languages that we hear every day, especially in cities  like ours, the play gives a realistic portrait of today’s linguistic cohabitation.

The writer breathes life into the play by integrating our fragmented cultural backgrounds.

“Growing up, my friends were Italian, Polish, Vietnamese, Philipino. It’s so integrated that I wanted to see it reflected on stage.”

The story takes place in Real City, a dystopian hybrid between Montréal and Vancouver. Though fictitious in nature, the play speaks to the true issues that exist in both cities. The production is the fruit of a collaboration between Montreal company Black Theatre Workshop and Vancouver’s Urban Ink Productions.

Newton’s background in Hip Hop culture has inspired him to create a multi-faceted Hip Hop play that integrates different media such as video and experimental sound and forms of expression.

He says: “This play incorporated all of my passions, from theatre to spoken word and hip hop.”

The cast is made up of four actors with solid stage experience, including the two main characters carried by Letitia Brookes and Tristan D. Lalla, as well as Bill Merasty and Jordan Waunch. There is  also spoken word artist, Kim Vilagante, who is acting for the first time. This mix of artistic experience and stage experience gives Sal Capone a few layers of meaning for a younger, more urban audience. The play also brings out the diversity of the people living in our cities, something yet to be achieved on a larger scale.

“The proportion of non-white actors in theatre is improving as they are making more of an effort to bring diversity to the stage. Everyone wants to be an actor, but actors play out the words written by other people. It’s really up to people like myself to get our stories produced. If we really want to have an impact, we need more writers and directors of colour”, he explains.

This is Omari’s first play that is funded and produced, which is “an honour since theatre is such a hard business”, he says.

Black Theatre Workshop is a local theatre company  that has been active since the mid-sixties. As stated on their website, the company aims to “promote and produce Black theatre that educates, entertains and delights its audiences”. Urban Ink Productions “collaborates with artists and communities to push cultural boundaries through the creation and production of innovative Indigenous and cross-cultural performance works”.

Sal Capone was workshopped for three years before being presented at the MAI (3680 rue Jeanne Mance) from Thursday October 24th until November 10th, every day except for Mondays and Tuesdays. Regular tickets are $25. More info here: www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca

Trailer – Story of Many (Written and Performed by Omari Newton and Kia Kadiri):

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