One-man play Nggrfg goes international
// Leah Scheitel

“As a child, I realized I had two things working against me. Both would determine the course I took in life: Nigger. Fag. I know. I don’t like these words either.” This is a line from Vancouverite Berend McKenzie’s one-man play, named after the taunts that he endured as a child, but written as “Nggrfg”.

“We took out the vowels, because we found it was really difficult to see the full title spelt out, even for me,” explains McKenzie. “So we just put in the consonants.”

McKenzie based the play on his childhood memories of growing up being homosexual and black in rural Alberta. His adoptive father was an RCMP officer, so the family moved often: “I’m half black and half white, and I grew up in a few small towns in Northern Alberta, and I was the only black child to live in some of these towns at that time. So I had an afro and looked different than everybody else,” he says.

McKenzie was nine years old when the miniseries Roots debuted on TV, and that had a great impact on his childhood: “I was targeted on the playgrounds and called a ‘nigger’ and, later on, a ‘faggot’. Any of the names that came up in Roots, like Chicken George, or Kunta Kinte or Kizzy, the female slave, every day that one of those episodes aired, I would then be called one of those names. The mini-series aired for about a week, but it [the taunts] went on for quite a while.”

It was these memories that McKenzie first pulled from in order to write his one-man play, which is composed of seven different stories. The stories were written at various times, and compiled later.

“The first story is about when I was playing with a skipping rope on a playground, and a bully grabbed the skipping rope and used it as a whip,” he explains. “He re-enacted the whipping scene in Roots, and chased me around, calling me a ‘nigger’, telling me to change my name. I wrote that for the Edmonton Loud and Queer Festival, and then the other pieces came from there.”

Nggrfg first premiered at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 2009, and since then has toured the country twice, had a run in Toronto, and was performed in Seattle.

McKenzie was also commissioned by the Vancouver School Board to perform the play for local high school students. “The students get it. They’re living it in real time. They’re dealing with the issues during that day that they see the show. Many of them have been teased in the hallways, so they really understand why the show has the title that it does, and why I’m out there performing it,” McKenzie says.

His next target is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, and he is currently fundraising to take the show there through “We’ve pledged to raise $10,000 in 30 days,” says McKenzie, explaining that “if you say you’re going to raise $10,000 in 30 days, you have exactly 30 days to raise that money,” or you won’t get any money at all. “That’s the kicker, maybe that’s why they call it ‘Kickstarter’,” he jokes.

As of recently, McKenzie has met his $10,000 goal; however, he is still open to contributions. The deadline for McKenzie’s campaign is Mar. 26 and he is also taking donations in the form of Air Miles to help pay for some of the flight expenses to Europe.

McKenzie is hoping to gain some international attention at the highly-acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “Often Fringe [Festivals] tend to be high-stress. Quickly into the space, quickly out of the space. You want a positive review right off of the top, because often a positive review will help you sell tickets, and vice versa if you get a negative review,” he says. “In Scotland, there are 2,500 shows in a month, whereas Vancouver’s Fringe has 800 shows in two weeks. It’s double the amount of shows, so it’s very difficult to get attention there. You’re also performing there alongside people like Joan Rivers and John Leguizamo. A lot of bigger stars will go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival just to do some theatre again.”

McKenzie is blown away by the support he has received from his friends and the arts community in Vancouver. His family is also very supportive of his endeavours: “They’re very proud. My parents are very amazing people. When I told them that I was doing a show called ‘Nigger Fag’, they were like, ‘Oh, good, dear. Good luck with that,’ but when they saw the show and [saw] the response and the support that I have gotten over the last four years, they’re just really proud of the work I’ve done and they support me 100 per cent.”

“A lot of people aren’t able to get involved or don’t know what it’s like to put on a play like Nggrfg. This allows them, in their own way, to be a part of the process,” McKenzie says of taking the play to Edinburgh. “It’s been really amazing, and it’s been really humbling for me to watch Vancouver rally behind the show.”

For more information on Nggrfg or Berend Mckenzie, check out www.smallbrownpackage. com. To donate, search “Nggrfg is going to Scotland” on

//Leah Scheitel, writer

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