Stage Door Review 2022
Monday, December 5, 2022
by Kanika Ambrose, directed by Sabryn Rock
Cahoots Theatre & Theatre Passe Muraille, Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto
November 19-December 3, 2022
“Ooo decide ooo d’yah pon refugee an ooo just illegal? ... Dem mek up de rules fi suit ooo ever seh dem wan”
I felt very lucky to have seen the second last performance of our place by Kanika Ambrose, having bought tickets just before the final week of its world premiere run sold out. It’s a powerful play, superbly acted, directed and designed, And Ambrose is someone whose works we will eagerly look forward to in the future.
The play is set sometime in 2015 or 2016 in Scarborough primarily at the Jerk Pork Castle in a strip mall where the two main characters work and in front of a bedroom which serves as a symbol for most of the action. The two characters are Andrea (Virgilia Griffith) and Niesha (Sophia Walker), illegal immigrants from the fictional Caribbean islands of Fanon and Caviva. Ambrose has chosen fictional islands in order that her play not impugn the residents of any specific Caribbean country as having a propensity to work in Canada illegally.
Further than that, Ambrose has created a fictional dialect for Andrea and Niesha that blends four real dialects. As Ambrose states in her Note in the programme, “This choice was made to protect the identities and regional origins of people who are currently in precarious work situations”.
The story of our place contrasts in rigorous fashion the personalities and love lives of Andrea and Niesha. The vivacious, outgoing Andrea already has a regular boyfriend in the self-confident Malcolm (Trevor Nelson), while we watch how the cautious, more reserved Niesha falls into a relationship with the diffident construction worker Eldrick (Pablo Ogunlesi). Ambrose’s strict parallels between the course of the relationships of these two couples gives the play a strong internal structure and is the prime means through which Ambrose comments on the insecure status of illegal immigrants in Canada.
At work Niesha constantly has the restaurant television tuned to CP24 where the news concerns Canada’s accepting of Syrian refugees, a programme that occurred primarily between 2015 and 2016. Ambrose underlines the difference between the two women immediately since Niesha is glued to the information on the television while Andrea wants Niesha to turn it off. Both women have stayed on beyond the period of their tourist visas and have been hired by the unseen Yvonne, owner of the Jerk Pork Castle, who is willing to hire illegal immigrants and pay them below minimum wage.
Niesha is so fascinated by the news because Canada is so welcoming to people who have never been here while those who have chosen to stay and work, like she and Andrea, live under constant threat of deportation. This situation leads to Niesha’s question, “Ooo decide ooo d’yah pon refugee an ooo just illegal? ... Dem mek up de rules fi suit ooo ever seh dem wan”.
Ambrose is clear that both women are happy living in Canaa. They both make several times more than they would back home and they have enough to save to send money back to the children they have there. The hope of providing their children a better future is what motivates them both.
The two take opposite approaches to their situation. The carefree Andrea focusses on making herself beautiful and seductive in order to catch a man. And she thinks she has succeeded in snaring Malcolm. Niesha, however, is generally suspicious of strangers and is particularly careful about not revealing her status to anyone. She is initially brusque and offhand with Eldrick. Since Niesha is sure she does not have the alluring looks and shape that Andrea does, she can’t believe that any man would actually be interested in her for herself. Over time Niesha comes to see Eldrick as an earnest and steady man who is sincere in his feelings toward her. Yet, the minute he says he knows about her status and offers to help, Niesha feels foolish to have let her guard down.
Sabryn Rock has drawn intense, highly detailed performances from the entire cast. Kudos are due to Griffith and Walker in particular for acting in an artificial dialect so convincingly that it seems completely natural. Not only that, the two do not let the dialect hinder them from expressing complex, mixed emotions. As for Nelson and Ogunlesi, dialect coach Alicia Richardson has done fine work in having the two men speak in such a way that we hear how their native dialect has softened over time. Indeed, the fact that Griffith and Walker’s character’s dialect is so strong is one of the giveaways that they are recent arrivals in Canada.
Sophia Walker gives an outstanding performance as Niesha. The way that she shows how a prim, introverted woman gradually allows herself to fall in love Eldrick is wonderful to watch. The way she shows how awkward Niesha feels wearing a tight dress to impress Eldrick (Andrea’s idea), is subtly comic and makes us empathize immediately with someone who has never thought she was physically attractive. Walker has us empathize with Niesha so much that when Eldrick tells her he knows of her illegal status we feel as much betrayed as Niesha does, and our once sympathetic feelings toward Eldrick never fully recover.
Virgilia Griffith is delightful as Andrea, a good-time girl who seems quite happy to let Niesha do all the work at the café. Griffith makes Andrea’s sole focus on makeup, sexy clothes and dancing a comic contrast to Niesha’s stolidity. Yet, nothing is quite as simple as it first seems in Ambrose’s play. Beneath Andrea’s outward attitude of superficiality is a fierce desire to find a husband so she can sponsor her child to join her in Canada. By the end of the play, Griffith reveals an Andrea completely drained of the vitality that we thought was Andrea’s most essential quality.
In Trevor Nelson’s Malcolm we think that Andrea has found a fine catch – tall, handsome, deep-voiced, passionate. Yet, Nelson subtly suggests from the very first that Malcom does not think he and Andrea are in a “relationship” to the same extent that Andrea does. Gradually, Nelson shows that the qualities that Andrea and we first found attractive in Malcolm give no indication of his real feelings. We see that Malcolm can be passionate but also feel disengaged from the momentary object of his passion.
Pablo Ogunlesi gives a warmly sympathetic portrait of Eldrick, at least through the first half of the play. His Eldrick, like Walker’s Niesha, is not a person with a high opinion of his looks or abilities. Eldrick seems so shy in his first encounters with Niesha, we feels that Niesha is being too hard on him. Once Niesha starts to relent we are glad that she is giving such a nice, self-effacing guy like Eldrick a chance since he is such a complete contrast to Malcolm.
Nevertheless, Ogunlesi has suggested from the beginning that there is some mystery about Eldrick that we can’t quite figure out. Eldrick may seem at first like an uncomplicated person, but Ogunlesi shows that is not true. Early on Eldrick has had a plan to help Niesha acquire legal status that he has kept hidden from her. When he reveals this Niesha doubts the whole basis of her relationship with Eldrick, and so do we. From that point on we doubt everything that Eldrick says, thus placing Ogunlesi in the difficult position of playing Eldrick as sincere and truthful despite Niesha and the audience having turned against him.
Ambrose’s our place may be a play about a social issue, but she has so imbedded the issues surrounding the fear that illegal immigrants face with the characters and plot of her play that the play never feels didactic as many thesis plays often do. Ambrose allows the structure of contrasting couples to speak for itself. She completely avoids that bane of many new Canadian plays, the “in-case-you-didn’t get-it” speech. Instead of explanations, Ambrose takes the more powerful route of leaving us sad but unsurprised by what has happened to one couple and doubtful whether the other can ever be happy. Ambrose’s title our place we at first think refers to the store where the women work. Over time we see it become the question of what place illegal immigrants can call “ours”.
During the Covid lockdown Theatre Passe Muraille undertook major renovations. In the larger theatre the seating is now more flexible. Rock has placed the audience on three sides of Simge Suzer’s extraordinarily detailed set of the Jerk Pork Castle. Even the back of the set which the audience sees only when entering is fully decorated. Rock uses the area around the Jerk Pork Castle set as an area for the walks outdoors that the characters take. Higher up in a corner of the theatre across from the store is a bedroom reached by a few steps. Rock’s and Suzer’s notion seems to be that obtaining entrance to this symbolic bedroom of marriage is the ideal that any female illegal immigrant would want. That symbol takes on a highly ironic tone in the course of Ambrose’s play.
Ambrose’s play is important for the issues it forces the audience to confront, but it is really a model for other playwrights who would tackle social and political topics on how to integrate those topics with the personalities of the characters and the structure of the plot. The impact of our place is both intellectual and emotional. Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille have given Ambrose’s play an unmatchable production with an unsurpassable cast. Ambrose’s our place is a play that demands to be seen and Ambrose a playwright who demands to be heard.
Photos: Virgilia Griffith as Andrea and Sophia Walker as Niesha. © 2022 Gesilafeya Azorbo.
For tickets visit www.passemuraille.ca.