From the screen to the stage: Kareem Mortimer directs his first play at Dundas

Award-winning filmmaker Kareem Mortimer mixed things up this week, when he opened “Clybourne Park” at The Dundas Centre for Performing Arts. A novice to theatre directing, Mortimer is known for specializing in films that confront issues like racism, homophobia and xenophobia.

Actors performing a scene in the first act of the play “Clybourne Park”, which is now on at the Dundas. Images by Kelsey Nottage.

Mortimer was part of the cast of “Twelve Angry Men” when it was performed at The Dundas in 2014. Before that, his experience in theatre was limited to writing and performing in high school productions. “Growing up in The Bahamas, there were no filmmakers I could look up to, like a mentor,” recalled Mortimer. “So plays were the natural thing to gravitate toward.” Feeling that it would be well received and a good cultural fit, Mortimer developed an interest in directing “Clybourne Park” at The Dundas. Written in 2010 by Bruce Norris, “Clybourne Park” is a spinoff of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”.

The first half of the play, a drama, is set in 1959, the year “A Raisin in the Sun” was written, when a couple in a middle class Chicago neighborhood (Clybourne Park) is planning to sell the family home to a black family. This is met with protest and attempts to prevent the imminent integration. The second half of the play, a comedy, is set 50 years later, in 2009. By that time, Clybourne Park has become an all-black neighborhood, which is moving through gentrification. The exchanges among the interracial cast are awkward and comical, revolving around race, “political correctness” and prejudice.

Actors performing a scene in the first act of the play “Clybourne Park”, which is now on at the Dundas. Images by Kelsey Nottage.

Mortimer approached Philip Burrows, artistic director of Ringplay Productions (the theatre company that manages The Dundas) with his proposal, feeling that directing a theatre production could challenge him professionally. With Burrows’ support, he moved full steam ahead. “Clybourne Park” opened on Thursday, April 14 with a cast of seven. “It’s been a huge learning experience for me because it’s so different,” said Mortimer. “In a film, you control the frame. You set exactly what the audience sees. You can shift someone’s performance because you can edit the scene. So, as a director, you’re dictating the information that’s going to be received. But, in a play, the actor is totally in control. The whole stage is a palette, so you can have all these different experiences.” Among those experiences are opportunities to think and talk about race in ways that are often avoided out of social etiquette.

Understanding that it is by confronting this discomfort that meaningful progress is made, Mortimer has shown bravery and boldness with his film – and now theatre – direction. “There are things that people think but they don’t say about race or history, and they get to express that in the play. There are a lot of moments where you can’t believe the character just said that,” he said. This year is a full one for the director. Having written an original play, titled “About Death”, the odds of Mortimer coming back to theatre look good. He will also be returning his focus to filmmaking with hopes of premiering his latest work, a feature film called “Cargo” in late 2016 or early 2017.

Actors performing a scene in the first act of the play “Clybourne Park”, which is now on at the Dundas. Images by Kelsey Nottage.

Tickets for “Clybourne Park” are on sale for $30 each at The Dundas. It will be performed at 8 p.m. tonight at The Dundas and next week Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the same time. Student tickets are on sale for $15 for the Thursday evening performance. For more information, contact The Dundas at 393-3728.