Playwright Rebecca Applebaum shares the origin story of her new play Complex (now playing at Summerworks), and some of the surprising details that gave rise to this new play for a divided city.

The concept of the play came out of a time when I was working at a theatre for social change company. In my research on the internet, I came across Chalkfarm, which is a neighbourhood of four apartment complexes near Jane and Wilson known for its crime and violence. I sent videos and articles to the director, and the next day we were chatting about how insane this place was. Meanwhile, a colleague was listening in and said, “Chalkfarm? I used to live there.” “Really?! what was it like?” “It was normal,” she said. And so that got me thinking about how different our perception of this place was from what it must have been like for MOST people living there.

The other thing that the play came from was talking to a friend of mine who is also a non-white actor, about the “Dangerous Minds” sort of narrative that we see over and over again, where the “noble” white person goes into an underprivileged non-white scenario. So I wanted to complicate and subvert this narrative with the play as well.

So the play follows a tutor-student relationship. The tutor (Sarah) is non-white, and has preconceptions about what the student (Darren) (who lives in Chalkfarm) is dealing with (i.e. gangs and violence). In reality, the student is dealing with something completely different. Sarah’s preconceptions become fantasy, and in an attempt to escape from her own life, she ends up crossing the line with Darren and making things more difficult for him.

(Mazin Elsadig, also grew up for part of his teen years in Chalkfarm and so brings this experience to his role. He mentioned on our first read through that he didn’t know about Chalkfarm’s reputation until he left.)

The play also uses math lessons on Complex numbers (which are made up of Real and Imaginary numbers) as a metaphor for how people are connected in the play. The audience sees these connections, while the characters remain blind to them.

There’s also a mental health theme, as what Darren is dealing with at home is really his mother’s erratic behaviour following her arrival back from her trip to Jamaica to bury her mother. In addition, Sarah’s boyfriend has OCD and just started going to group therapy.

In a way, I see the play as a bit of an allegory about how different communities relate to each other in this city. I hope that people will be able to see themselves in all the characters, including their flaws, and come away considering how they may be implicated in these sorts of dynamics. The play doesn’t offer any answers. I just hope people start thinking and talking afterwards.

– Rebecca Applebaum (Complex playwright)

Complex is now playing at Summerworks.

Life With More Cowbell calls Complex a “Beautifully layered exploration of relationships, class, the struggle for order, and mental illness…”

The playwright spoke with She Does the City  about how the play “speaks to the experience of living in areas that are at once demonized and mythologized.”