By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It wasn’t a promising start to a life: “a little Mexican Indian whose mom and dad didn’t want him.”
The guy who stands before us, tattooed and smiling in front of a big magic board, is telling the class — us — a story. It’s set in a big bad dangerous world of L.A street life, exotic to us and full of size x-large characters, suspense, stress, crime, violence, wild detours, startling discoveries. And the protagonist, who’s worked his way through that world against the odds to get to us, is … him.
He’s Henry Andrade (aka MC RedCloud). Evandalism, directed by the Fringe’s Murray Utas, is his own personal once-upon-a-time. And since RedCloud, an engaging Indigenous Mexican of Wixárika heritage, is a visual and hip-hop artist, an award-winning rap warrior (and, hey, a playwright), his presence onstage is, in a dramatic way, his own dénouement.
Evandalism (look up the term on Google, it’s wittily applied here) is a surprising original of a show. It’s funny, it’s tense, it’s horrifying and charming. And yes, it’s inspirational, but not in the ways you might expect. As a fascinating projection-scape (designed by Matt Schuurman) documents from RedCloud’s own photos, real life constantly side-steps expectations. Or kicks them in the ass.
It’s a story of changing a life, of finding one family after another. At the outset, jettisoned by his mother (a 17-year-old Huichol from Jalisco) and a father he’s never met (“his family can’t know about me”), “I was raised by a whole new family,” he tells us. They’re Chicanos in a tough part of L.A. dominated by street gangs like Hawthorne Lil Watts 13 (LWS). RedCloud conjures a dangerous environment with some warmth, through the eyes of a self-styled crybaby — the sweet mom and a brood of brothers and cousins and uncles and a dad who are destined to be forever in and out of jail. There’s a funny story involving a Toys R Us truck, but I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you.
Anyhow, suffice it to say that the family is pretty much the conceptual opposite of any heartwarming ‘dysfunctional family’ sitcom you could name. The anecdotes have a vivid dark humour about them, and RedCloud is an amused, self-deprecating story-teller. And the school — 55 kids in a class, equally divided between Mexicans, Chicanos and Blacks — makes the average coming-of-age angst story smear into pastels. It’s a tough world (“I wanna be a Grade 8 Black kid when I grow up!”). And young Andrade, a little guy in the realm of fearsome giants, finds a place for himself as a performer when he discovers rap battles as a way to fight street wars “by making it funny … without blood or getting expelled.”
He seems to have a natural gift, as he casually demonstrates from the stage; his mentor is an older kid, a rapper who gives him a sense of possibility. And he also discovers in himself a talent for drawing and calligraphy — acquired by copying the lettering of prison envelopes from relatives in the slammer — and graffiti. Utas’s production is clever about including the graffiti possibilities of the magic board along with Schuurman’s projection design. The Evandalism program itself is a work of art, a sort of black-and-white tapestry of Andrade life themes that include Aztec warrior, prison, church, theatre, love.
Anyhow, the fraught environment has its own drift towards another sort of family, in the gang. By Grade 6, Andrade has been inducted. And this is followed by a traumatic recruitment out of the gang (it’s called “getting jumped out of the game” for a reason, as you discover) into another family, church.
Which might lead you to anticipate a certain conventional narrative wrap involving salvation. You’ll be surprised. Andrade is more than skeptical. Organized religion? Well, it might give you a safe place to stay when your options are “jail or die,” true. But he steps up to the big negatives: says, “it made me a homophobe, a xenophobe … it made me sexist.”
Evandalism is evidence that RedCloud got himself a new family —in art, music, rap, theatre — that’s got his back. What gives this show its unusual kick is that the goal, in the end, isn’t salvation through some sort of conformity or alignment, whether religious, social or political. It’s happiness. And he traces his sense of possibility back to boyhood and the slightly older rapper kid who told him to practice daily: “you can be the best; you’ve got this!”
It’s a moving, but curiously unsentimental, arc. The slides at the end of Evandalism document the characters we meet in RedCloud’s story of changing, moving on. Many are in jail. Resolutions are few and far between. But there they are, too: a beautiful wife (actor Crystle Lightning, co-creator with him of the hit Bear Grease, an Indigenous version of the blockbuster musical which returns to the Westbury Dec. 6 to 8) and his own kid. It’s a real-life story. I won’t be forgetting it soon.
Check out 12thnight’s interview wth MC RedCloud here.
Theatre: Edmonton Fringe Theatre
Created by and starring: Henry ‘RedCloud’ Andrade
Directed by: Murray Utas
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through through Nov. 26
Tickets: fringetheatre.ca, or at the box office “offer what you will.”