SummerWorks Review: Homegrown

It’s tough to separate Homegrown from the controversy it’s stirred up at this year’s SummerWorks festival (I posted links to the Toronto Sun articles that created that controversy in my preview article here), but let’s try.

Homegrown is a bad play. It’s not a bad play because it is sympathetic to terrorists, or because it got arts funding from the city that the Toronto 18 tried to bomb. It’s a bad play because it’s very badly written.

Homegrown is based on the story of playwright Catherine Frid and the interactions she had with Shareef Abdulhaleem, a man alleged to be part of the Toronto 18 bomb plot, while he was in prison. Cate started visiting Abdulhaleem with the goal of writing a play about prison, and ended up becoming obsessed “with separating fact from hype in the face of the uncertainty, delays and secrecy in his case,” according to the program.

Clearly there’s a good story in here somewhere, but Homegrown doesn’t tell it. Instead of separating fact from hype, it can’t separate fact from the playwright’s opinion. Frid’s opinion is pretty clearly that Abdulhaleem hasn’t really done anything wrong, or at least that he’s been treated unfairly by the system. That’s a fine opinion to have, but rather than explaining it or defending it, it’s like Frid just repeats it over and over again, without really backing it up. Sure, Abdulhaleem should’ve gotten to trial faster. Sure, the accusations about how long he was kept in solitary, if they’re true, are a serious matter. Sure, the fact that star witnesses in the government’s case were highly paid informants and probably not the most scrupulous of fellows is troubling. But none of this makes Abdulhaleem innocent, and in fact, if everything happened the way it’s shown in the play, I think he’s probably guilty of his charges.

The parts of the play that don’t feel repetitive feels badly developed. The part of Cate (played by Shannon Perreault) is especially poorly written, ironic since that’s the part the playwright should know best. There’s no real feeling or explanation for why she gets so caught up in Abdulhaleem’s story. The plot point about her long-term relationship falling apart because of her obsession feels like it’s added just so that Cate can rant at her boyfriend in a scene about how “we get the government we deserve,” and name-drop Maher Arar a couple of times, because it doesn’t fit anywhere else. Lwam Ghebrehariat, the actor who plays Abdulhaleem, does a fair job, but has some pretty nonsensical scenes to deal with, including one where he hallucinates about his cats dying without him to take care of them that feels totally out of place. The plot spends quite some time on the stories of two of the informants in the case, Mubin Shaikh (Omar Hady) and Shaher Elsohemy (Razi Shawahdeh), but then reveals that Shaikh had nothing to do with Abdulhaleem being arrested so his scenes are largely irrelevant to the plot. Abdulhaleem says his court-appointed lawyer isn’t competent enough to orchestrate a good defense, but then he’s never mentioned again, leaving me to wonder if Frid even talked to Abdulhaleem’s lawyer in all this. Part of Abdulhaleem’s trial is done on-stage, but it’s compressed in such a way that by the time the judge’s decision plays in a recorded voiceover I was left wondering “is that it?”

The most interesting part of the show is when Ghebrehariat reads the letter that the actual Abdulhaleem wrote to the festival in support of the play. But the most interesting part of Abdulhaleem’s story, as he tells it – the part where he got caught up in a terrorist plot because he thought the best way to deal with it wasn’t to call the police, but to try and control the situation so that as few people got hurt as possible – is largely put aside. Instead, we get “When Cate Met Shareef,” if you will, and if you can forgive me for being flippant over a play about terrorism. Just how much Abdulhaleem knew or did – whether he knew about the plan to short the TSX before blowing it up, whether he really did buy the fertilizer, whether he did anything on the stand besides yell to make the judge call his behaviour erratic and throw out his entrapment motion – is never really elaborated on. The only mildly interesting part of Cate’s story is when she tries to get a copy of some court documents, but is foiled by a bureaucrat in glasses (Hady again). We’re left to fill in the blanks about whether this is shady government cover-up stuff or not ourselves. I’m going to go with “no, probably not.”

Controversies aside, Homegrown isn’t bad because it’s sympathetic to an alleged terrorist, or because grant money was used to make it. It’s bad because it’s…well, it’s just bad. There is probably a good story to be told about Shareef Abdulhaleem. Maybe it’s one that will send ripples up the justice system and make all of us re-think what we know about terrorists and freedom in Canada. Or maybe not. Either way, Homegrown is not that story.

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Posted on by Brian in Everything, Reviews, Summerworks

10 Responses to SummerWorks Review: Homegrown

  1. Ricky

    wow

  2. Wade

    Interesting comments Brian.

    I enjoyed the show. It was informative, it made me mad at our justice system and even a bit sympathetic toward Shareef. I left the show feeling several things and that is where I thought that it was effective to me, an audience member. It was worth my money. I mean Karens’ money.

  3. @ Brian

    Weren’t you the same guy who liked “Stephen Harper: the Musical”?
    Cause that was a SHIT play and therefore I don’t trust your judgement on this. At least this play has a point.

  4. trina

    I agree. It was terrible. The only thing it made me think at the end was “well, they really gloss over that part where he says he did it.” It being try to blow up my city. but beyond coming out still hating the guy, I totally agree with Brian about the play itself. So much felt shoved in with no artistic or plot driven reason, but just to (badly) pontificate. Could have been a ten minute monologue to the same effect.

  5. greg

    this play was stupid. it ignores so many facts that the play just serves as an attempt to re-write the narrative that emerged from court facts. and why the hell do i need to know about mubin sheik when he was not involved? why do we hear the lawyer referred to as ‘court appointed’ that is totally false – Shareef’s father hired him. a stupid play for stupid people.

  6. Brian

    @#3: If you go see Homegrown, let me know what you think.

    @greg: Shareef’s father hired the lawyer, eh? Seems an odd thing to get wrong. I wondered that about the whole plot point with Mubin too.

  7. @ Brian

    I liked the play. I left questioning who’s right and who’s wrong. Even if buddy IS guilty he still has rights. Like the right to a fair trial and a speedy one at that.
    He was kept in solitary for 15 months!!!! Amnesty international says anything more than 30 days is a violation of human rights. So the part when he was talking about his cats dying was illustrating his mental state at being in a 2×2 bare cell for FIFTEEN MONTHS!

    Those are rights that we are supposed to have regardless of the crime. If the government can just take them away whenever they choose then we are all in danger.

    I thought the staging was effective, creative and theatrical.

    While a bit clunky at times in the writing I thought overall she did a good job at taking the very dry facts and turning it into something watchable.

    I was engaged and listening the entire time.

    I agree in that I would have liked more depth to the female lead about why she got so caught up in this case.

    But I just assumed that she (a lawyer) made a personal connection with a person who was going through something horrible and decided to speak on his behalf.
    Her conflict was obvious and evident to me though. This was demonstrated in the staging – her partner on one side of the stage and Shareef on the other and see caught in between, travelling back and forth, torn between the two.

    Sometimes you have to look beyond the dialogue and SEE what is happening onstage.

    In the end I go to shows to be entertained and / or challenged in my ideas.
    This play certainly had me questioning my ideals and beliefs.

    She was telling a story about one person’s experience. If she was sympathetic it’s only because the character is human. However I did not feel like she was trying to sway the audience or convince us that terrorism is great. Only to look beyond what we are told and don’t believe everything we read and hear. And everyone comes from somewhere.

  8. Ricky

    haters gonna hate

  9. vic

    @greg

    stupid play for stupid people?

    it’s stupid until the day that you get picked up on the street during a peaceful protest and they use those same laws to hold you in a detention centre on the lakeshore without explaining to you why you were arrested and keep for over 24 with barely any water in sub human conditions. if you don’t think this affects you then you’re the stupid one.

  10. george t.

    just like #2 admitted – it created sympathy for a convicted terrorist who did not even put up a defence for himself in court – so this play is the only way he can try to garner sympathy. looks like he got it. yes, i wasted 10 bucks on this. my bad.

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