Theatre Review: Homegrown (2010)

Theatre Review: Homegrown
Written by Maria Gergin
Friday, 20 August 2010
photo by Maria GerginA prison alarm buzzes and a sterile white light is cast on two jail mates huddled in imaginary cells. Within the first two minutes of their hushed and frenzied dialogue, they aptly conclude: “The lawyers are the problem…everyone knows you don’t trust a lawyer”. This — the alleged failings of our justice system, and not terrorism — is the main premise of Catherine Frid’s now wildly controversial play, Homegrown.The play, which ran at Theatre Passe Muraille as part of the 2010 SummerWorks theatre festival, portrays playwright Catherine Frid’s year-and-a-half relationship with Shareef Abdelhaleem, one of the “Toronto 18” who was convicted for participating in a terrorist plot.Homegrown has caused an outpouring of journalistic and political outrage for allegedly offering an overly sympathetic image of a convicted terrorist, and, in the words of the Prime Minister’s spokesman, for “glorifying terrorism.”

Lwam Ghebrehariat, a third-year law student at the University of Toronto, and the actor who played Shareef Abdelhaleem, found himself being told he’d been cast as “the devil” and was suddenly gracing the cover of the Toronto Sun. Not surprisingly, Ghebrehariat notes that the media’s fervent politicization of the play made playing Abdelhaleem a real challenge. “The frenzy erupted when the Toronto Sun put my face on the cover on July 31, and published a sensational story about the play, based on false preconceptions,” he says. “My challenge was to stay centred and focused on my job as an actor, in order to tell the story in the best way possible.”

Many aspects of the play invite valid criticism, but glorification of terrorism is just not one of them. There is no violent spectacle, smoke, or irreverent speech-making. At worst, the play is a risqué portrayal of the inadequacies of the Canadian justice system and a somewhat didactic critique of the Anti-terrorism Act. And, for all its lofty themes (the elusiveness of democratic freedoms and timely access to justice for all), at times,Homegrown simply suffers from some bad writing; in one particularly inspired exchange, Cate shouts: “You’re a classic Canadian! You’re so naïve. We’re supposed to be smarter than the Americans.”

What has truly fuelled the controversy is Frid’s portrayal of Abdelhaleem himself. In the play, he appears almost absurdly affable and self-reflective. He’s an ambitious learner who takes long distance law courses and breaks into bursts of philosophical monologue on the nature of justice. At times he’s tortured and hopeless; at others, he’s full of silly excitement (“I’m on Wikipedia?! What does it say??”). Ultimately, Frid carries the burden of a desperate attempt to make Abdelhaleem’s character “likeable” — a nearly impossible task in the face of his very real participation in a terrorist plot.

Ghebrehariat, who delivers an outstanding performance as Abdelhaleem, notes that the character’s slippery contradictions presented one of the greatest challenges in portraying him: “This process [of understanding the character I was playing] involved challenging my own misconceptions of who I thought the character was. Initially I thought Shareef should be more serious and sombre; however, as the rehearsals progressed, I discovered that he could be humorous and charming at times, which challenged my own misconceptions, and which I think challenged the audience’s preconceptions as well.”

And what of the extensive criticism doled out in response to the fact that Homegrownreceived public funding? The media’s fury has focused mainly on the suggestion that the same government which convicted Abdelhaleem of terrorism against its citizens has been caught simultaneously funding a sympathetic portrayal of the man. SummerWorks received a grant of $35,000 from the federal government and $24,500 from the Ontario Arts Council to fund all of its productions. A spokesman for federal Heritage Minister James Moore has explicitly stated that while SummerWorks has been getting government funding for years, the government has never provided funding for any specific production. The decisions to fund particular plays, and the extent of the funding they receive, are not made by the provincial or federal governments — nor should they be.

Public funding of independent theatre is not — and should not be seen as — some kind of ideological endorsement. Ghebrehariat, who has much to say on the issue, notes that by making public funding available to independent theatre festivals, the government is making “a wise investment” — not in any particular idea, but rather, in the independent artistic community. “English Canada needs to do a better job of communicating to the public the fact that arts funding is not just a ‘handout,’” he says. “The arts industry is a significant employer and contributor in Canadian society and a strong and well-supported artistic community can help to stimulate the economy.”

The funding obsession, along with the preoccupation with the issue of what constitutes an acceptable artistic portrayal of a man convicted of terrorist activity, has, sadly, drowned out many of the other key issues raised by the play — one being the need to uphold the right to timely access to justice. The unreasonable length of time Abdelhaleem has spent waiting for a trial date is certainly one of the narrative’s main preoccupations. In a dramatic monologue which stands out as one of the highlights of the play, Abdelhaleem refers to himself as a “forgotten prisoner”; he eventually pleads guilty, we are told, in a desperate and final attempt to have his case heard. Frid’s emphasis on the protracted length of time Abdelhaleem spends in jail should be seen as a comment not only on his particular situation, but also on the state of the Canadian justice system as a whole. After all, the reality is that reasonably timely access to a hearing is currently being denied to tens of thousands charged with crimes entirely unrelated to terrorist activity — some among them wrongfully charged to begin with.

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