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Someone On Your Side

February 14, 2022

This is about visibility!” declares Berend McKenzie with the kind of go-for-the-gusto velocity that makes time fly when you talk to them. “This is about opportunity! This is about being in the room where it happens!” they say quoting a musical (Hamilton) they admire without actually liking. You’ll have to imagine the way the italics roll out…. 

McKenzie is talking about Confluence, the second annual “creative fellowship” established by Catalyst to support IBPOC artists in creating, honing, and setting forth their own work their own way. They’re this year’s Confluence Fellow, and at some point we’ll be seeing their Confluence project, a new musical-in-progress called In The Centre, set in a care centre for AIDS patients.  

Actually, the word ‘confluence” seems custom-tailored for McKenzie, who’s black and queer, with a tumultuous history and a skill set that seem infinitely expansible (stage and screen actor; writer of plays, sketches, short stories, films).

Their story, which has more than its share of tragedy, death, setbacks, self-discoveries and reinventions, is a veritable confluence of artistic branches. And it’s a wellspring of raw lived-in material for their plays, which step up fearlessly to subjects like racism and homophobia. 

McKenzie knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. They know, as well, what’s like “to have a hero on your side,” as they put it. And, they figure that “reaching out to BIPOC queer outsiders in schools and universities, and being a cheerleader for them” is a part of being a Confluence fellow. 

Which explains why they’ve teamed up with the faculty of Victoria School and the Black Students Association there for Black History Month and beyond, to orchestrate a series of online conversations for the kids. And they’ve reached out to a wide range of practising artists — ceramicists, trans and two-spirit performers, actors, playwrights (Brad Fraser among them).…

The starting point is three or four questions, says McKenzie, who has an empathetic kind of exuberance about them in conversation. “Things like ‘what does representation look like to you? What does Black History Month mean to you? What would you say to people who feel they don’t have a place in the arts because of the colour of their skin?’” Then the students take it away; they’re in charge.

“It’s a way for kids to feel connection, and get some inspiration.” COVID, as they point out, has ravaged the sense of cultural connectivity, and “destroyed a lot of hopes and dreams.” This month they’re consulting with the theatre students at MacEwan University to launch a similar project. 

“If people don’t feel there’s a place for them, I get it!” says McKenzie.  

MacEwan theatre arts in its pre-university period was their alma mater. Which is where they found their “hero,” the late teacher/mentor/director Tim Ryan, who stood up for them when they heard from others that “you’re not black enough, or you’re too gay…. He saw in me what others didn’t. He’d punch me in the shoulder and say ‘you can do it! I believe in you!’” And it was Ryan who cast them in such Leave It To Jane productions as The Tempest and Measure For Measure. 

Right after graduation, McKenzie, who’d been diagnosed HIV-positive, moved to Vancouver. It was 1991, “before the pills,” as they put it. What followed was a sort of apocalyptic decade-long drugs and alcohol binge, as they describe. “Everyone I knew had died, or was continuing to die. I went to Vancouver to party my face off. I spent the first 10 years waiting for my end, and it never came. No matter what I did.” ”

Once sober, they decided to be a film actor. That at least was the plan. “I did three horrible big-budget movies,” says McKenzie cheerfully. In Angelina Jolie’s Life Or Something, “one of the worst movies ever made. I played her make-up artist.” He was in Connie and Carla, with Nia Varadalos and Toni Collette, “also a bomb,” and Catwoman with Halle Berry, who won a Razzie for her work. “I had to walk by her cubicle and say ‘man sandwich 12 o’clock’,” and they got asked to “be a little less gay!” They laugh. “I mean, what’s my motivation?”

About then, by no coincidence, McKenzie started writing.  

Writing and Edmonton are inextricably linked in the McKenzie story, “The very first thing I’d ever written” was a short play for the Loud ‘N’ Queer festival here. Fashion Police was based, as they describe, on a scene (All That Glitters), from Darrin Hagen’s memoir The Edmonton Queen in which they appeared. In Fashion Police, “the story is judge-y gay people sitting at a table criticizing people about their fashion choices.” 

“Titans of the Edmonton theatre community, Trevor Schmidt and Andrea House, were in it. And they can make anything good!” says McKenzie. The capper was that the actors used puppets. “It was hilarious. When Trevor would lose his line, the puppet would look for it.” 

Putting the puppets in charge — “they get to decide who manipulates them” — inspired McKenzie’s first full-length play in 2009. Get Off The Cross, Mary! which eminently deserved its exclamation mark, is a queer puppet show for adults. “A bunch of puppets hire actors in L.A. and bring them up to Edmonton to do a queer version of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.”  

McKenzie’s provocative solo show NGGRFG (would you say the name of this play?), based on his own experience of being marginalized, premiered at the Edmonton Fringe. It toured 25 Vancouver high schools and (in a somewhat edited version) 25 elementary schools, and played theatres in the east including Young People’s Theatre in Toronto and the Neptune in Halifax. “After the Edinburgh Fringe (“soul-crushing!”),  I didn’t write for eight years. I had nothing else to give.”

These days McKenzie is back in Edmonton, where it all began. Vancouver became too fraught with memories when his partner of 28 years passed away. When COVID hit in early 2020, McKenzie reached out to out-of-work filmmaker friends — “here’s 500 bucks; teach me what you know” —  teach him how to translate a short story they’d written for an AIDS anthology into a 10-episode web series, Hockey Night in Canada. Then, with help, they turned it into a feature film — which won them a place in WarnerMedia’s debut X Global Access Academy’s Writers’ Program. Now their script Angry Little Black Man is under option by Warner.

“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. And it’s really changed my life,” says McKenzie. And change is their mantra, he says, as a Confluence Fellow: change in the behind-the-scenes power structure of the arts, change in the granting bodies that support them, change in the gate-keeper structure of artistic directorships.

“The main work is letting other IBPOC artists and queer outsiders know there is a place for them in a more inclusive arts community…. We’re here,” McKenzie says. “And we’re not going anywhere.”