Now that I’ve seen the controversial play “Homegrown,” I have both good news and bad news for theatre-goers and concerned Canadians.
Good news: “Homegrown” does not depict terrorism in a positive light.
Bad news: “Homegrown” is not worth the hype.
Last week, the media were up in arms about “Homegrown,” after the PMO expressed its displeasure about Department of Canadian Heritage monies helping fund the Summerworks festival in which it appears.
The Toronto Sun put it on the front page. My colleagues David Akin, Brian Lilley, Don Peat and Michael Coren all weighed in on whether government funding should support something that offers a “sympathetic portrayal” based on terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem.
I supported Homegrown’s right to artistic exploration, sight unseen. No Prime Minister of a free country should dismiss works of art without looking at them. It’s weak not to support the work of the Department of Canadian Heritage or indeed, of the rights of the artists it funds to do what they do.
That’s a freedom we all ought to hold dear.
We need art right now, to explain this messed-up world we live in. Controversial matters call for challenging art, to offer us some understanding of what most of us find incomprehensible. And if there’s one subject really worth delving into, it’s the motivations of the Toronto 18 and how they plotted “homegrown terror” on a grand scale here in Canada.
Sadly, Homegrown offers none of that. Its bilateral portrait of an obsessed lawyer-cum-playwright (Cate, the avatar of real-life playwright Catherine Frid) seeking an exciting subject in wild-eyed prisoner “Shareef” falls flat. And not because of what it tells us, but what it doesn’t.
What Homegrown tells us is that Shareef is a dork, either naive or incredibly cunning, obsessed with cats, a probable drug abuser and psych patient, languishing in jail for a crime that he doesn’t see as terrorism, held in an existential hell of confinement without trial under a bewildering series of laws, many of them new.
What Homegrown doesn’t tell us is how this dork, with a group of similarly moronic and misguided, if not openly murderous friends and associates, managed with their activities to draw the attention of the RCMP and CSIS. There are oblique mentions of “the camp” and “the fertilizer” and a bunch of phone calls, plus sneering portraits of highly paid informants who ‘ratted them out.’ That’s about it.
Homegrown doesn’t tell us who the Toronto 18 were, what they did, why, or even how they got caught. Not even as personified by Shareef, whom we only ever come to know within the confines of his cell, and whose story (what we actually learn of it) is mostly told in his own twisted words.
But these are the very things Canadians really want to, deserve to know: How did this happen among us? How does a group of disaffected youth set their sights on blowing up the Toronto Stock Exchange and beheading the Prime Minister? How far did they get? How were they brought down? WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT?
Don’t go to Homegrown looking for answers to those questions. Their absence is the most profound thing about the play.
I did find three important points that made the play worthwhile, though not enjoyable for me:
1. Canada’s anti-terror legislation, rushed through in the shadow of 911, gives unprecedented sweeping powers to authorities and deserves to be carefully examined.
2. Shady informants got a lot of taxpayer’s money to put the Toronto 18 away.
3. Access to information about the court proceedings in the Toronto 18 cases is extremely constrained.
If true as presented (after all, it’s just a play) these three points deserve to be explored in depth.
Sadly, that’s about it.
I credit the playwright, Catherine Frid, for her boldness in drawing a character based on herself as obsessive, naive, reckless, and thrill-seeking. But a play, about trying to make a play, about trying to get the truth behind the story of one member of the Toronto 18 is threatened by its own thin plot to begin with, and doomed by its failure to flesh it out.
That said, I didn’t see much in Homegrown that deserves the accusation that it “supports terrorism”. Shareef’s illogical, pathetic attempts at self-justification (he was only trying to make sure as few people as possible got hurt!) fall utterly flat, as they should, and there’s nothing to suggest it’s ever justifiable, let alone admirable, to plot mass destruction. “Cate” may see Shareef as not guilty on a fine point of law, but it’s her husband’s blunt dismissal of the plotters that has the greater moral resonance.
Still, it was a disappointment to see many of the audience leap to their feet after 75 minutes of very dubious theatre. Was that about artistic freedom, or was that about being predisposed to love anything Prime Minister Harper is predisposed to hate? (I note with interest that several members of the audience who were obviously Muslims remained seated.)
I’m glad I defended this play. I’m sorry it’s not a better play. And I’m sorriest of all we still don’t have the answers we need.