What a laugh – Copy That!

By Stephen Weir

Richard Waugh, Emma Ferreira, Tony Ofori and Jeff Lillico in Copy That – Photo by Cyllla von Tiedemann

Playwright Jason Sherman, you’ve got some ‘splaining’ to do! Sherman’s new Canadian play – Copy That – had its world premier at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre last week, and while the subject matter of the play should immediately resonate with anyone who has had or knows someone who has lived through a DWB experience, the two act dark comedy does have some ‘splaining’ to do’ about the words he has put in the actors’ mouths.

This is the story of four writers holed up in a writer’s room struggling to get their new cop hostage series script written and approved for production. When Colin, the team’s only Black writer Colin (Toronto’s Tony Ofori) is roughed up in a street stop encounter, the fallout threatens to not only kill the show, but exposes the systemic racism and sexism at the heart of the film and TV industry.

Even before Ofori’s character is stopped in his car and beaten by police, the writing of a cop hostage series was falling off the rails. Elsa (Janet-Laine Green) the owner of the show is unhappy with the scripts she is seeing. Worried that the network is not going to pick up the series and fearing bankruptcy, she phones in rewrites every day.

The audience doesn’t see her in the first act; she is a disembodied voice that whines through the speakerphone at center stage.  Listen closely, you might recognize the voice -the Toronto actress is one of the voices of a number of animated TV shows (Little Bear and Never Ending Story) and video games (Transformer Beast Wars Metals); and she has appeared in over 70 movies and TV shows.  

Janet-Laine Green does appear on stage in the second act and continues to mess with the storyline of the cop show and with the minds of the writers.  She secretly gets Maia (Emma Ferreira), a young bi-racial film school grad to work on the script and orders Danny (Jeff Lillico), a young Jewish scriptwriter to redo the dialogue of the Black character.

As a person who has worked on a short run TV series, the chaos that follows – backstabbing amongst the writers, constant changes in the script and unexpected promotions and firings of the staff, rings true as the story stumbles towards a shocking but not unexpected ending.

The daily newspapers have not been kind to “Copy That”.  Could it be because it is unlikely the critics have experienced a DWB incident of their own?

Richard Waugh, Tony Ofori, Emma Ferreira and Jeff Lillico in Copy That Photo by Cyllla von Tiedemann

On opening night the audience didn’t appear to agree with the harsh comments. They laughed. They cheered and they gave Standing OH’s when the 2-hour evening drew to a close.

For us, the I Love Lucy ‘splaining to do” moment references how Jason Sherman writes dialogue for the two characters of colour.  Although we are never told where the play is set, one is to assume that this is Good Ol’ Toronto.  Tony Orfo, looks and sounds like a born and raised 6ixer (which he is).  Likewise – Emma Ferreira’s downtrodden Maia could have just landed her first coffee-girl job in the industry after graduating from York’s film programme.

For some reason Sherman makes Orfo’s voice come out American; so when a white Jewish writer rewrites the script, we get a full-blown Super Fly for the Black characters, and the guns come out.  Some in the theatre find it funny; others mutter and shake their heads.  It’s certainly disconcerting but not reason enough to stay away from these caustic, funny takes on the TV industry and the impact of Driving While Black. 

BTW – DWB continues to be a flashpoint issue in Canada. In the US it is too often a deadly problem.  What would make this play more relevant and funnier is if the script of the play and the TV show within it, spoke about this serious issue with a Toronto voice.  I apologize for the criticism, just trying to be Canadian … and you can copy that Good Buddy.