• Cicely Blain

Robinson’s "Mx" is Disrupting the Norm & Raising Awareness about the Complexities of Racial Identity

Updated: Aug 28, 2019


Lili Robinson, Playwright of Mx

Exploring the complexities of racial identity is what inspired playwright Lili Robinson’s latest work, Mx. “The concept for Mx was born from a deep sense of needing to unpack my racial identity and untangle my personal history as a mixed-race kid,” she explains. “I was raised in Vancouver by my white Canadian mother, and I grew up with little connection to the Black community in the city, which was at that time particularly small in number. It was not until late into my teens, witnessing the onslaught of police murders of unarmed Black people in the States, that I was unavoidably confronted with the question, ‘Where do fit? All at once I became sharply aware of the very particular circumstances of my childhood: raised in a white family, and brought up in many ‘colour-blind’ social environments, I viewed my own blackness as if at a distance, like an anecdote rather than a true part of myself. The process of finding and understanding my place in the Black community and reclaiming that part of my identity was a key trigger for me to start writing this play.”

In particular, her own lived experiences have informed the play’s protagonist, Max. “At the centre of the play is a character heavily based on my own life, Max, struggling to reconcile their multiple ‘in between’ identities with the expectations of race, gender, and sexuality that society has set out for them. By sharing my experiences through this character, I hope to give folks with similar experience a sense of greater community, and a feeling of being seen. Through the character ‘hosting’ the show, Mz Nancy, I wanted to see how far we could go to flip the status quo of who feels comfortable in a theatrical environment. Namely, how could that character work to centre the experience and presence of Black, Indigenous and POC audience members, and disrupt the norm of how theatre is often tailored for white audiences.”

Robinson and producer, Shanae Sodhi, have also cultivated a team made up all queer and/or BIPOC artists, including Donna-Michelle Saint Bernard from Toronto as Mx’s director. “I’m really proud that of the 12 people in the cast and crew, 7 of those 12 are Black women.”

Though Robinson believes that while Vancouver is a multicultural city on the whole, erasure of Black folks is an issue that persists. “For Black folks in Vancouver there is a ton of erasure of not only the specific struggles we face and the racism Blacks folks in Vancouver deal with daily, but of our very presence in this city, both historically and right now,” she explains. “As well, though Vancouver has a thriving queer community, there is a lot of ignorance and racism embedded into it; so it is a tricky thing to be queer and Black, though there is starting to be greater recognition of QTBIPOC lives and struggles in the community, thanks to the hard work of activists and organizers like those at BLM. Finally, there's the journey of figuring out what it means to be mixed-race (for me, half white and half Black), and the feeling of utter isolation that can be part of that, the feeling that you are not ‘enough’ of anything.”

For Robinson, the feeling of not being ‘enough’ isn’t limited to race either. “It's an experience I've also felt being bisexual, and more recently felt in my sense of my gender identity: that sense that what I am doesn't t into any one box, not even in such a way that I feel totally comfortable taking on the term non-binary yet, though in some ways it feels right. There is so much beauty in liminal identities, but they can also be extremely challenging to navigate in a colonial society that would REALLY PREFER if you'd just be one thing or the other, and t one of the boxes they've set out for you.”

Given the personal nature of the play, Robinson was fearful of how the general public, especially those who have gone through the same struggles, would react to the depiction. “In the early stages of writing the script, I had a lot of anxiety around what my communities were going to think of the show, and a fear that in all my efforts to write a story uplifting us, I would fail in the telling, or folks would misread my intentions with the satirical elements,” she goes on. “I was having a hard time getting down to writing, I was so worried about this. A mentor of mine gave me some great advice, telling me, ‘the play has to ask hard questions of everybody. Your job is to challenge and ask questions of your own community. If you're not scared, you're not doing the work.’ Those words really hit home.”

Another challenge Robinson experienced while writing the script? Burnout. “When we won the Fringe New Play Prize last November, the script was in a very, very early stage,” she explains. “It was more of a pitch than a script, really. So it has been an intense year of writing and, with Shanae, learning the ins and outs of producing on the fly.” Robinson also learned a valuable lesson: the importance of taking a step back. “At the start of the year I had way over-committed myself and ended up getting very, very sick in January with a severe gut infection. They never found the cause and I really believe it was my body's way of forcing me to stop overworking myself and ignoring my own needs. This is still a real struggle for me, and I don't really have the answers on how to break out of the cycle of burnout: but I think it's important to name, as I think a lot of us (particularly artists, activists, marginalized and low-income folks) are stuck in that cycle, without concrete resources or strategies on how to break it. I think it's something we need to start talk about and challenging in more depth.”

The willingness to ask questions and do research about communities outside of our direct experience is imperative. “Get educated so you can show up in a meaningful way when you are needed, and start to create truly inclusive spaces starting from a place of humility and willingness to learn,” she urges. “Whether that starts with something as simple as listening to a podcast from a queer Black perspective while you're cooking dinner - starting with something that simple and making it a habit, a habit of listening to and being informed by a lived experience of the world that is outside of your own. And then bring that listening into the room with you as you invite people from the queer and/or Black communities into your space, and as you move outside your comfort zone and go support their work.”

Robinson also encourages communities to be outspoken on issues that resonate with them. “Pass the mic - if you feel moved about an issue outside of your own experience, look for ways to give those communities a platform, resources, leadership roles in your organization. Look for ways you can use your own privilege to leverage others. In my opinion, that's what real allyship is about.”

Mx runs at the Vancouver Fringe September 6-15.

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