David for Queen: One Play, Two Views Part II (The Bad)

Posted by Wayves volunteer 10/16/2014

By Hugo Dann

The Halifax Theatre for Young People (HTYP) unveiled its latest production last Friday at the Alderney Landing Theatre. Written almost 20 years ago by acclaimed Canadian playwright John Lazarus, adapted and updated for this production by Halifax writer Kristin Slaney, David for Queen seeks to examine anti-gay violence and cyber bullying as experienced by a teenage boy in a Halifax middle school.

David For Queen is a play with an agenda; one might even be tempted to quote former MP Roseanne Skokes and say it has a “homosexualist agenda!”

There are two ways to assess the effectiveness of such an issue-driven play. One has to consider how well it presents its particular topic, and one has to assess how it stands up as an expression of the theatrical art. I would contend that if a play can’t stand on its merits as good theatre, its unlikely to succeed as an advocacy piece. For this reviewer, David for Queen fell short on both counts.

There are some strong performances. James MacNeil does a splendid job making David charming, likeable, and smart, as doesMary Fay Coady playing his friend Bryn. Samantha Wilson is great as David’s mother.

David never actually expresses any same-sex attraction in the play, but he does eventually come out as gay, or at least “other-than-entirely-heterosexual.” He faces nearly all the trials associated with coming out: fear of disappointing his parents; rejection by friends and peers; a less than supportive school administration; and violent, anti-gay bullying.

The issues faced by David aren’t subtle. He is subjected to a vicious cyber-bullying attack, and brutally gay-bashed (twice!) while at school. Neither David nor his mother are able to effect any change that will make the school safe for him to attend. His father seems angrily to reject him.

Christian Murray, an enormously gifted and experienced actor, has the unenviable task of playing all three homophobic characters; the principal, the school bully, and David’s father. One can see him striving to imbue the father with complex, even contradictory emotions: love for his son; concernand discomfort regarding David's possible sexual orientation. But the script gives him little room for complexity, and none whatsoever for growth. In his final scene the author has him ending the family discussion, shouting clichés, “I only want what’s best for you!” and storming off the stage.

Indeed most of the characters are underdeveloped or presented as mere types. David’s best buddy is a callow jock type. In an attempted show of ‘solidarity’ with David, he “comes out" as liking artsy chicks. 

Despite having the power to silence David, and in the case of the Principal, to leave him very much in harm’s way, the school’s authority figures are presented as feckless or silly, rather than as people with real concerns or prejudices.

The play is set in Halifax; David and his family are portrayed as being media savvy, but there are no mentions of Lindsay Willow, Jessica Durling, the recent inclusion of Gender Identity and Gender Expression in the NS Human Rights Act, the coverage for Gender Confirming Surgeries under MSI, the cyber-bullying and death of Rehtaeh Parsons, the murder of Raymond Taavel, the attack on Scott Jones, the 4th largest Pride Parade in Canada, Gay Straight Alliances, or even the existence of the Youth Project. It’s as though nothing had happened that even remotely impacted the lives of LGBTQ people in Nova Scotia since the adoption of marriage equality in 2005.*

After the first bashing, David’s mother tricks him into seeing a Doctor who she hopes, as an openly gay man, might be a role model for her son. White, male, middle-class professional, married-with-children, this Doctor is a veritable poster boy for an assimilationist view of queer identity. Furthermore, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that an openly gay doctor practicing in Halifax wouldn’t think to direct either David or his family- even if not to the Youth Project, then at least to the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, or prideHealth for help and resources.

(The Youth Project does have a full-page ad on the inside cover of the program - which is great! - but not one single textual reference in the play itself - Author's note).

Far more troubling is the Doctor’s bizarre and simplistic reduction of the complex social problem of homophobic violence. He attributes it to men who are insecure about their own sexual orientation. After hearing this, David confronts his bully in mid attack, saying words to the effect of, “If you wanted to make out with me, why didn’t you just say so.” Inexplicably, and contrary to any reports of the so-called “gay panic” defense that I’ve ever read, David’s bully stops pummelling him and runs away.

I would be terrified if anyone were actually to try this as a means of self-defense. The consequences could be fatal.

Finally, I have to express my concern over fow HTYP approached its choice of plawright for the adaptation. I do not know Ms. Slaney’s orientation or gender identity, and I'm sure there are many who feel that it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. If it were purely a question of artistic freedom, I’d be inclined to agree ... somewhat.

In Nova Scotia in 2014, LGBTQ people aremain a marginalised community; our youth remain vulnerable. If HTYP didn't think the prejudices facing LGBTQ youth weren't serious, why would they have gone to all this trouble to present the play?  

Surely given these realities, given the sorry truth that our histories are not taught, our stories seldom told, and their interpreatation frequently stolen from us; given all this, shouldn't the the adaptation have been entrusted to one of our own; to one of the many brilliant, openly queer/trans, Nova Scotian playwrights - artists who've made careers out of writing queer characters in queer-themed plays? That it was not constitutes, for me, both a political and an artistic failure. I cannot recommend David for Queen for anyone.

*Editor’s Note: Lindsey Willow, while a high school teacher in HRM, won a Human Rights tribunal against the homophobic harassment of a senior administrator, not unlike the school principal in the play. Jessica Durling, a trans student in Hants County sought a safe washroom facility at her school; the two attacks on David in the play take place in the boys’ changing room. The death of Nova Scotian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons following both a sexual assault and vicious cyber-bullying incident has had a profound impact on how government and schools deal with harassment online and in social media.

Box Office Information: David for Queen runs until October 18 at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth, NS. You can learn more about the production or purchase tickets by visiting their website here.

Editor's Note: Hugo Dann is a Halifax based actor-director. He has a history of volunteering with LGBTQ organizations, however the views expressed above are entirely his own.

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