Blackbird puts spotlight on audience

Vagabond Theatre’s production dares audiences to sympathize with a controversial character

Sarah Reny and Sean Meldrum on stage during Blackbird.
Wallis Coldoza
Blackbird provides a powerful outlook on the human condition.
Vagabond Theatre’s Blackbird uses no theatre lights, no sound effects or extravagant costumes — only a set resembling a simple break room. 
As a production, Blackbird provokes vulnerability and internal dialogue in the audience. It begins in an organic setting — with the house lights on — and develops into a sincere conversation about the effects of two people’s dark pasts.
Vagabond’s presentation of David Harrower’s Blackbird puts observers in an uncomfortably human position by magnifying the controversial themes of the play, including consent, sexuality and exploitation.
“It’s all in the moment you enter the space,” Blackbird’s director Wallis Caldoza said, referring to the immersive nature of the production.
Blackbird centres on a conversation between 27-year-old Una, played by Sarah Reny, and 55-year-old Ray, played by Sean Meldrum, who was arrested for his illegal relationship with Una 15 years earlier.
Meldrum’s unapologetically raw performance was unforgettable. Ray is, by definition, a pedophile, yet Meldrum’s portrayal puts the audience in a position where we couldn’t help but sympathize with his character. The strength of his performance helped make the production emphatically powerful and thought provoking. 
As an audience member, Blackbird felt more like an honest conversation than a piece of theatre. It brought up questions surrounding the idea of justice and the validity of human instincts in the scheme of criminal activities. The piece was inspired by the life of Toby Studebaker, a former U.S. Marine who abducted and seduced a twelve-year-old girl after meeting her via the Internet. 
Caldoza said the piece reflects society’s attitude toward recent contemporary events, including Studebaker’s case. 
“We live in a time with a lot of desolation, yet we move forward,” Caldoza said.  
Sarah Reny, the co-artistic director and female lead of the play, agreed.
“The play represents how society deals with this type of issue,” she said. 
The performance demands more from the audience than the average play. As an audience, we became privy to a stimulating conversation that challenged societal values and human morality. This forces us to consider and address, personally, issues that are typically taboo and left untouched, such as the validity of registering a person as a sex offender. 
By giving a voice and background to a convicted sex offender, Harrower’s script elicits a convoluted sense of guilt and sympathy from the audience. In stark fluorescent light, the audience was forced to digest the events unfolding in front of them while surrounded by peers. Through revealing lighting, Caldoza stripped the audience of privacy, which was a powerful artistic decision. 
Meldrum said the ambiguity of the show’s title reflects the characters.  
“Blackbirds can be ravens or crows”, Meldrum said. “By calling the play Blackbird, it gives the title two meanings, which I think is the same with these characters.” 
Vagabond’s season will continue in April with a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

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