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Reefer Madness: Origins at Toronto Fringe Festival 2019!

Reefer Madness: Origins at Toronto Fringe Festival 2019!

Laura Londono

Girth Radio Presents…

Now that pot is finally legal in Canada, isn’t it time you educated yourself on the history of its criminalization?

Reefer Madness: Origins is delivering a heavy hit at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival.

Set in 1930’s America, a time of great economic turmoil, Reefer Madness tells the story of Harry J. Anslinger (Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics) and his quest to criminalize the use of Marijuana by any means necessary. He unleashes a racist propaganda campaign and enlists the help of anyone he can get his hands on, including anti-drug Christian activists, WW1 black veteran Gary O’Neill, and adman Thomas Devlin. Shedding light on the racist origins of cannabis prohibition, and challenging us to question the misinformed propaganda of our time, Reefer Madness is a play you do not want to miss!

Dana Carrabon and Mehdi Sidali, creators of D & M Creative, the company behind this production, intend to shatter social stigmas regarding cannabis use for the sake of “medical aid & research, harm reduction services, and amnesty”.  I recently had the chance to sit down and interview Mehdi, the show’s playwright, about what inspired him to write this, what his favorite munchies snacks are, and what we can expect from the play:

Girth Radio: What inspired you to write Reefer Madness: Origins?

Mehdi Sidali: Well, it goes way back actually. We initially put this show on back in 2018. When I say we, I mean Dana and I, we’re the two heads of D&M Creative. Dana approached me with the idea in 2017, and we created the first draft which was performed at Ryerson University in 2018.

That was the catalyst for wanting to create something bigger and more comprehensive. We took the ideas that we explored in the first show, the idea of building towards the movie as the main action of the plot but decided to include some elements of government conspiracy. Inspired from seeing declassified documents being marred with black and the word ‘redacted.’  I essentially decided to dramatize the whole idea of targeting the African American community, the Jazz community, the Marijuana-using community in general, as sort of a targeted sting operation to take down an alleged networking point.

Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, is facing a tonne of questions. Alcohol is now legal and there’s no longer a need to attack and arrest rum-runners as they were called. The FBN is in a place where they have no money because, number one, it’s the great depression, so times are tight as it is, and number two, there’s not much money coming into them by seizing alcohol and the proceeds of selling it.

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was a sector of the US Department of the Treasury. The FBN wasn’t really law enforcement, it wasn’t really health services, it was about money for the Treasury. And we want to show that side of things. That while they did hate marijuana on an ideological level, purporting that it corrupts people and that it is going to turn our society upside down, ultimately a big motivator was to get some money in. I really wanted to show that it’s a lot more calculated than it appears.

So that’s really the whole theme of the show being called Reefer Madness. It’s not just that it’s about reefer, but that this is just essentially backwards policy against something that isn’t detrimental to health.

GR: How did you go about researching the play?

MS: There’s this history book called Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana. It’s written by Larry Sloman. He wrote a very nice historiography about it; exploring Harry Anslinger and the time when the famous propaganda came about. It was a very useful resource.

Moreover, we had a lot of primary source documents like pamphlets and posters that have little slogans like “It ain’t hay” or “Marijuana boy” and showing some lost and depraved street boy, or other things like that. Those little slogans or catchphrases that get used to get people to pay attention. Those posters and pamphlets had a campiness to them. You sit down with your kids and you talk about it with them, like “make sure you don’t do this and become like this boy or girl”. That was a big part of this piece, showing how the idea is sold to people.

We have this character Thomas Devlin played by Dana Carrabon, who is essentially the agent that Harry Anslinger uses to spread disinformation. Thomas Devlin is a fictional ad man we created, the best in the state, and he’s the one who’s sort of finding people who create these kinds of posters and uses his media connections to spread them and do what he does best: sell. It really involves a lot of high-level maneuvering.

GR: What’s your favourite moment in the play?

MS: I love the ending. The ending is interesting because we see Mr. Devlin’s true nature coming out. He’s revealing himself for what he actually is. No longer taking the beating from Harry Anslinger. In that scene the tables completely turn. Anslinger is facing the fact that he is going to be the catalyst to the drug war, the policy that influences the world for the next 80 years.

But that name Harry Anslinger…people don’t really know that name. Yet this is the man responsible for the biggest changes in drug policy.

The whole marijuana prohibition, if you can call it that, was its own compartmentalized operation, and then, poof. It was forgotten. It was ingrained in the public through readings, through advertisements, through speeches and then lost to time. Mr. Devlin shows Anslinger the future. A mosaic of future events resulting in the actions he took in his time in office. It’s that theme of madness repeating itself. Everything about this whole campaign is in a sense backwards. One day pot became associated with the devil and committing crimes and that was that. But really it was to serve a purpose of crushing one potential industry and demonizing a certain demographic.

GR: Your bio mentions that you are ‘Willing to enter uncharted waters if it means a meaningful story lies at the end of that adventure’ What would you say was the biggest risk you took in writing this play? And is this your first play?

MS: Yeah, this would be my second play, because the previous Reefer Madness we made would be number one. But this would be the first full length 90-minute play.

The uncharted territories aspect is definitely embarking creating art like we’ve created. Getting a play out into the world is number one, because you never know how it will be received, and number two, people have their own stigma about Marijuana. It’s legal now in Canada, which is great, but I myself am no personal advocate of Marijuana use. I think other countries could legalize hemp and put it to good use, we could say that’s a useful thing for people, but I’m not somebody who says “go smoke pot, that’s the thing for you.” I’m a supporter of someone who wants to use it, a supporter of people who want to indulge in it and enjoy it for its uses, and I’m definitely against people staying incarcerated for things like simple possession. They should be out by now.

With all that said, going into this kind of theme and presenting it to people, it can get the wrong impression. People can definitely think, “Oh yeah, a bunch of stoners made a play about pot and most of this is probably made up”. It’s easy to take that perspective, especially if you have never looked into it, or have never even thought about pot, and I don’t blame you If you haven’t.

The point is this is a polarizing topic, people can debate this based on their perceptions of the community, and that really boils down to our motto: to break the stigma through the arts. To make people aware more than anything. Going into uncharted territory is about coming back with something new, coming up with knowledge, coming up with something that’s going to make you better as a person, that’s going to make the world around you better, so even if you go down there and you get hate, you get criticism, whatever negativity that can come from it, there’s still that positive you can pull out and enforce.

GR: If you could express the main message you want the audience to walk away with, in one or two sentences, what would it be?

MS: I want people to do their research. I want them to question things. I want them to not accept everything at face value. There’s a difference between believing things because of authority and believing things because you yourself have looked at different sources and can say, “ok this is true, and this is not true”. We live in a time where videos of people talking are so accurate that you can’t tell if they’re real or fake. We’ve always been a society that values information as great resource, but more and more that resource is something people are directly involved with spreading, whether false or true, on a daily basis. So ultimately what this boils down to is do your research. Simple as that.

GR: What’s your munchies go-to snack?

MS: Right now, rice cakes are the wave. I love rice cakes. I can eat them by themselves, with tuna, doesn’t matter, I just love rice cakes.

GR: Flavoured rice cakes? Like the ones that are cheddar flavoured or just plain?

MS: Exactly, the white cheddar flavour. (Chuckles). I definitely eat the flavoured ones.


Make sure to check out Reefer Madness: Origins at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival, playing at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace until this Saturday July 13th. Tickets available HERE.

11 July 2019 Girth Radio Blog

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