The History of Sexuality is a play that is going to make you uncomfortable, but the reasons it will are the very reasons why you should see it.
Following a successful run at the Mainline theater in September 2017, it was selected as part of Pride 2018’s programming. Playwright, director, and producer Dane Stewart set out to write a play about queerness and power dynamics and the result is a piece that is visceral, heartrending, intellectual, sexy, and authentic.
The play revolves around a Master’s seminar about Michel Foucault’s book, The History of Sexuality taught by Marie, played by Renée Hodgins. It is through this seminar that the stories of the professor and her students are tied together. Though they have their own lives and relationships with power dynamics and sexuality, they always end up in class to talk about Foucault.
Hodgins’ portrayal is partly of the stereotypical passionate university professor doing her best to make her students think, while at the same her character is given depth through her relationship with her long-term partner, Gayle, played by Haitian Canadian actress Melissa Toussaint.
Gayle is disabled and the struggles between her and Marie to maintain intimacy despite the disability are relatable and real. Toussaint’s Gayle is one of the most faithful representations of the struggle to live with disability I’ve ever seen on stage.
You feel her frustration as she struggles to find a job not only as a black woman, but as a disabled black woman, and you see the deflated look of depression so many disabled people have when Toussaint is on stage. It is a look similar to that of Madeleine, a black woman struggling with depression while doing her best to maintain her relationship with Alissa – played by Kayleigh Choiniere.
Madeleine – played by Jazmin Illidge – is a woman struggling to find her place in the world despite being a black lesbian with depression. You feel the listlessness in her portrayal and the impact on her relationship with Alissa, who works as a stripper. Alissa shares her struggles with being objectified in her work and her portrayal is a good demonstration of how ordinary and likeable strippers can be. In the play, Alissa is asked to introduce her classmate Talia (played by Katherine King) to stripping.
It is Talia and Darr, the play’s transgender character played by Darragh Mondoux, who are in one of the most important parts of the play. This section addresses sexual assault, and is overlaid with audio clips of an interview Dane Stewart did with an actual sexual assault survivor.
It mercilessly addresses the fact that it is the female victims’ accounts that are always put on trial and not men’s, and with every graphic detail, audiences are made profoundly aware that coercion or the simple violation of the accepted terms of a sexual encounter can turn a consensual encounter into a rape.
The play also includes an interview with a male self-professed perpetrator of sexual violence. It is an uncomfortable topic, but it’s an important one that we need to keep talking about.
The History of Sexuality also addresses kink, which is another topic that might make people uncomfortable. Craig – played by Trevor Barrette – is a student in Marie’s class, but he also works as a gay male escort, and is into puppy play. You see him being whipped by his master Martin, played by the Oliver Price who comes off a bit cold but well-suited to the part, as well as some simulated pee play that may make some people squirm.
That said, Barrette’s Craig is sweet and loveable and the relationship between Craig and Martin helps to demystify some aspects of kink. The portrayal also addresses the issue of emotional abuse while highlighting the power submissives have in BDSM relationships, a notion that is typically misunderstood. After Fifty Shades of Grey, we need more realistic portrayals of kink like this one and Stewart, Barrette, and Price certainly did it justice.
The History of Sexuality does have its flaws.
The portrayals of the characters in prostitution seem to minimize its dangers. The classroom scenes can get a bit boring and heavy with intellectual discussion, though they do succeed in addressing the viciousness with which some people on the Left speak to those with opposing views.
David Hudon is perfect as John, the stereotypical cis white male who is a slave to the gender binary and adheres to essentialist notions of differences between sexes. You feel John’s defensiveness constantly when he is on stage as well as how quick his non-gender conforming classmates are to attack him. Though the character has no backstory, Dane Stewart admitted in an earlier interview that the character is meant to represent the majority of men women and queer people have to deal with regularly.
The History of Sexuality is the kind of play we need more of. It’s not perfect, but it helps to demystify many aspects of sexuality many cis straight vanilla people would like to ignore but cannot. If you identify as queer, disabled, or trans, or a person of colour you will see aspects of yourself on stage and feel the power of being adequately represented. If you’re a woman who’s been victimized in the past, you will feel vindicated. If you’re cis and straight, the play will hopefully make you realize that people are people. For this reason alone, it’s worth seeing.
* The History of Sexuality runs August 9th through 12th. Tickets available through Place des Arts
** Featured image of Darragh Mondoux in The History of Sexuality by Peter Ryaux-Larsen