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That’s Even MORE Raven

Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera's Sébastien Heins

Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera’s Sébastien Heins

Since the good folks at b current are offering 2 for 1 tickets to their afteRock plays this week (check their Facebook page for more details), we thought we’d go the 2 for 1 route with our blog as well. Last week, inspired by a controversial and much discussed interview between Raven-Symoné and Oprah Winfrey, we chatted with The Femme Playlist‘s Catherine Hernandez about notions of identity and categorization as they relate to her show, celebrity and life in general. The conversation was fascinating in terms of what Catherine felt compelled to share and also in terms of the limits she put on her own entitlement to speak about the Raven/Oprah firestorm. The notion of who may speak to what and the ways in which privilege enters into that consideration were recently discussed in a thoughtful and provocative blog by Alexander Offord. There’s a tension between an individual’s perception of their own entitlement to speak vs. their perception of when others have the right to engage in a given dialogue. So imagine my surprise and delight when Sébastien Heins, who stars in Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera (currently running in rep with The Femme Playlist) dropped a line and shared another perspective on Ravengate.

Like I said. 2 for 1.

We recommend you check out our previous blog (featuring Catherine) before diving in here to appreciate their respective takes on the video (embedded below) and for a little more context on how notions of identity factor into the work we’ve been doing in schools through our IN CLASS workshops.

OR, you could just forge on and check out Sébastien’s response to the queries we put to Catherine earlier, herein presented in a more straightforward Q&A style in the interest of publishing before the afteRock Plays close this weekend.

Studio 180: What’s your response to the video?

Sébastien Heins: I agree with her. Hers is one of those perspectives that feels wrong, for whatever reason, I blame the pervasiveness of Toronto’s “passion for culture” ideology (a.k.a. watered-down cultural events that were electrifying in their origin countries but attract silent, awkward onlookers in TO) which is another perspective that feels wrong but true. She was saying something I’ve felt before, though haven’t been able to articulate.

180: Does it surprise you that there was such a huge backlash on Twitter over Raven’s comments?

SH: No. We’re talking about the internet. I could just hear the sound bytes being spun by media over her comments. “Raven is ashamed of being Black.” There’s an intelligent conversation at the heart of her comments and 90% of the people responding didn’t hear it…or listen.

180: Are labels divisive or unifying?

SH: Labels are divisive and unifying and empowering and disempowering. Labels give people a way to belong. A way to unite under words and ideas. They create tribes…communities…they’re good but they’re also limiting.

I’ve struggled with my own identity. Am I white, black, a mixie, Jamaican, German, Canadian? As an artist, am I mandated by my origins, or my sexuality, or my nationality to talk about being mixed, straight, or Canadian? As an actor, who am I obliged or supposed to play in relation to my genetic and cultural makeup?

I pursued solo theatre because I free myself of labels. I have no gender, no race, no sexuality, no political lean, no values, no morals, no history…until I CHOOSE to: Until the requirements of the character challenge me to inhabit a person defined by those labels. But until I switch into that character, I don’t want to have to play within the confines of a label. I want the audience to believe that anything is possible. That we are limitless when we are sharing human stories.

People are by nature unimaginative when it comes to their judgment of others. It’s a survival mechanism. You have to make a snap judgement of character about the big furry beast running towards you, otherwise you might get eaten. Same goes for labelling other humans as good, bad, helpful, or dangerous. The issue is that once you’re labelled, you assume all the negative as well as positive traits of your prescribed identity.

I don’t like that feeling. That someone else can pigeonhole me before I get the chance to educate them on the funny inner workings of “Sébastien”. I don’t trust people with the responsibility to determine who I am…before I’ve spent some time with them, anyway.

180: Does Raven have an obligation to identify as a part of her respective communities (gay/bi/African-American or what you will) in order to demonstrate solidarity or support?

SH: Not being in a position like hers, I don’t know. But she doesn’t come off as closeted or ashamed in the slightest. I think she’s just aware how labels get tossed around ignorantly. It’s not your responsibility to bear the judgement of your country. It’s your responsibility to live a caring, helping, passionate life. Nowhere does it say one must label oneself.

That said, I think it’s commendable and powerful when excellent people come out in solidarity of their excellent communities, and it’s a very positive way to reverse the tide of negative thinking re: gays, Muslims, immigrants, blacks, or any of the “Other.” We’re all people, and when great people come out in support of disrespected groups, they take away a little of the mystery that causes people to misjudge and hate those groups. It humanizes them.

180: How important is it to you to identify as a member of any group with which you may be associated.

SH: I have a hard time with making statements like, “I am a proud Canadian.” Am I proud of being a Canadian? Sure, absolutely, but there are a lot of things I don’t think are great about being a Canadian, and I choose not to adopt those traits by proclaiming how proud I am to be Canadian. I am Canadian. I was born here. But I’m a multifaceted human first, and if I was born in Lebanon, I’d be Lebanese. But I’d still be me either way.

Growing up mixed race, I never had a genuine sense of identity. People found the dynamic between my German and Jamaican heritage interesting. It is interesting. But I wasn’t born in Jamaica so I have no deserved stake in that country other than my own personal affinities for its food, patois, culture, people, history, etc. But for me to say that because I’m half Jamaican, I’m entitled to, I don’t know, criticize Jamaicans, or talk about Jamaica from a place of faux-understanding, I think that’s presumptuous and makes me feel like a fraud. But if I want to talk about Jamaica because I’ve done research on it, and put time into understanding it, and put my heart close to the earth there, then hell, I’ve earned a bit of freedom to talk about the place.

I think that people get possessive of a place or a culture because it gives THEM their identity. I think we give CULTURES their identity – we shape cultures ourselves – and so no culture should dictate who we are. It is we who dictate what our culture is.

Thanks so much to Sébastien and Catherine for sharing their thoughts. You only have a few more chances to catch their respective shows at Buddies in Bad Times this weekend.

  • A co-founder of Studio 180, Mark is a Toronto-based actor, writer and producer. As a member of our Core Artistic Team, Mark coordinates the company’s new play development initiatives and is one of our Studio 180 IN CLASS workshop leaders. More posts by Mark McGrinder

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