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Streamed through Toronto's Young People's Theatre

Courtesy of Toronto's Young People's Theatre

David Rabjohn

A unique video performance from Young People’s Theatre, ‘rihannaboi95’, is now available this December. Originating in 2013, this Governor General’s award- winning production is a one person show with Davinder Malhi cast as the perplexed teenager writhing through the dreams and terrors of identity, sexual orientation and relationships. Set in a young woman’s crowded bedroom, Sunny – aka rihannaboi95, speaks directly to both his supporters and detractors as he tries to make sense of his life. The evils of social media bullying simmer salaciously barely under the surface.

Sunny is obsessed with Rihanna – mainly for her talent and beauty, but one cannot help but consider her own struggles with race and abuse issues that may attract the victimized teenager. He privately takes comfort in mirroring her dance moves, video taping himself and editing his work under cover of blankets. He is fearful of his parents and his brother who question his manliness – sometimes Sunny “just slips their mind.” He moves towards the edge of an inappropriate relationship with a gay teacher who supports his creative video work – the teacher maintains professional guardrails which only further confuses Sunny.

Mr. Malhi’s strong performance is highlighted by facial expression that covers the entire spectrum of emotion. He enters the bedroom anxiously – eyes furtive – his head on a swivel. He is clearly terrified but tries to control it. Eventually we learn that a broken lip and a compromised ankle are a result of abuse both real and imagined. He cleverly manipulates his teenage language (lots of “like” and “you know”) sometimes halting and often speeding up as his excitement for Rihanna grows. He offers glimpses of smooth dance moves – hands spinning or arms waving seductively. One “Brittany” move is especially precise.

A particularly powerful moment is his denial of homosexuality in front of his teacher. The teacher’s offer of support is rejected, and Sunny’s confusion inflates. His body language changes as we see him pull at his sleeves nervously. Some of the narration becomes a little too lengthy which slows the otherwise strong pace. The “Shopper’s” story could have used some editing.

As Sunny continues to fidget nervously over sirens from the street or noises at the door, he must wrestle with his identity and make decisions about his love of documenting his dancing. Up to this point, Rihanna is barely heard in the background. As the bedroom door opens dramatically, Sunny makes his decision and launches full flight into a dance number with Rihanna at full volume. It is clear that Sunny is not an accomplished dancer – full credit to author Tannahill and director Tawiah M’Carthy for revealing a genuinely awkward teenager passionately subsumed in creativity.

Digital bullying, especially in the context of sexual orientation, is a formidable force. YPT, along with Mr. Malhi’s robust performance bravely faces the issue with both subtlety and power. It is suggested that “they will hate you.” Hopefully, this strong production will help young people to learn how to face or change this inevitability.

‘rihannaboi95’ by Jordan Tannahill streamed through Young People’s Theatre

Director – Tawiah M’Carthy
Performer – Davinder Malhi
Set and costume – Camellia Koo
Lighting – Michelle Ramsey
Sound – River Oliveira
Runs through – December 18, 2021.

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