Stage Door Review 2023

Controlled Damage

Tuesday, January 24, 2023


by Andrea Scott, directed by Ray Hogg

Grand Theatre, London

January 20-29, 2023

I’m a troublemaker in their eyes. But I have no reason to apologize. Because, I did nothing wrong

If you want to get to know Viola Desmond, the woman whose face is on the $10 bill, there’s no better way than seeing Controlled Damage now playing at the Grand Theatre in London. Andrea Scott’s play naturally focusses on the incident that made Desmond a symbol of the fight for civil rights in Canada, but Scott’s play is no exercise in mythologizing Desmond – quite the reverse, in fact. What emerges is a warmly human portrait of a woman who simply protested against being punished when she did nothing wrong. Beck Lloyd is an ideal embodiment of Desmond that lends the entire show an uplifting mood.

Viola Desmond née Davis (1914-85) was born to a White mother and a Black father in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One of the first surprises in Scott’s portrayal of Desmond is that when anyone calls her Black or a Negro, she corrects them by saying she is of “mixed race”. In the play Desmond’s precision in speaking of her background is seem as one aspect of her general precision in judging what is right and wrong.

Inspired by her parents, Desmond decided she wanted to become an independent businesswoman. Her first job, however, was teaching in a racially segregated school for Black students. Here Scott shows that Desmond developed unorthodox methods, such as using play as a tool for teaching, and touched on uncomfortable subject such as slavery. Her innovations and deviations from the set curriculum caused her to be fired.

Noting that there was a lack of beauty products for darker-skinned women, Desmond saw a business opportunity. She began a programme at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montreal, one of the few institutions in Canada at the time that accepted Black applicants. She continued her training in the US, in Atlantic City and in New York. Desmond opened Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax that catered to the Black community. Beauty parlours became social centres for women in the Black community and as Trey Anthony’s play da Kink in My Hair (2002) demonstrates, they still do.

Desmond found so much success that she opened a beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, and expanded her business across the province. One product she promoted was a cream that would straighten hair and thus do away with the painful and dangerous practise Black women had previous employed for hair-straightening by using hot irons. In a scene at Desmond’s school, Scott has Desmond explain that the cream works by what is called “controlled damage”. That is, the cream breaks down protein bonds in hair so that it can be reshaped. (A similar process is used for permanents.)

Since Scott has chosen this method of hair treatment as her title we have to assume that Scott sees Desmond’s actions as an example of breaking down certain bonds in society to create something new.

The chief example of controlled damage is the now legendary encounter with racism that Desmond experienced at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In that small town Desmond’s car broke down while she was on her way to a business meeting and she was forced to stay overnight until the repairs could be done. She decided to see a movie, one of her pleasures in Sydney where she lived. While segregation was not law in Canada, individual businesses could enforce it if they chose without penalty. Desmond looked but there was no sign at the Roseland that such rules were in place.

On November 8, 1946, Desmond, being a fan of Olivia de Havilland, bought a ticket to see Dark Mirror at the Roseland. Though she thought she bought a ticket for the main floor she was given one for the balcony, the only section where “coloured” people, to use the term of the day, were allowed to sit. An usher seeing a non-white person sitting in the whites-only main floor, told her she had to move. Desmond didn’t care to. When told the main floor seats cost more, she offered to pay the difference.

The usher called in the manager Henry MacNeil, who said that the theatre had the right to “refuse admission to any objectionable person”. Desmond stated that she had not been refused admission and had in fact been sold a ticket. When she declined to leave her seat, a police officer was called in and Desmond was dragged out of the theatre, causing injuries to her hip and knee, and taken to jail.

Desmond had broken no laws so her arrest warrant was for “defrauding the government” by not paying the additional tax on the higher priced main floor seat. That extra tax amounted to 1¢. After a night in jail, she paid a $26 fine for tax evasion plus costs and was released.

Desmond’s husband Jack, who ran a barbershop right next to Desmond’s beauty salon, advised her to let the matter drop. William Oliver, the minister of her church, and the minister’s wife Pearline urged to fight the charge in court, and when she lost, to have her conviction overturned, which became another loss. Historians now blame the second loss on the approach of Desmond’s White lawyer who did not want to bring racial discrimination into the case.

One unusual insight Scott brings to her account of Desmond’s life is how she was viewed by the Black community. While those in Desmond’s church and in the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which he founded, supported Desmond, the Black community in general regarded her as a troublemaker and as “uppity” and proud, thinking her lighter skin made her superior to those with darker skin.

Scott includes a scene where an old friend visits Desmond in New York and calls her Canada’s Rosa Parks (although Desmond’s action preceded Parks’s by nine years). Scott has Desmond say she is no Rosa Park and that she is no civil rights activist. She tells her friends that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., are activists, not her. Desmond merely wanted it known that she did nothing wrong.

Thus, when we read on the web that Desmond was a “Black civil rights activist”, Scott’s play heavily qualifies that view. Desmond didn’t think of herself as Black, even if others did, and she didn’t think of herself as an activist. Her refusal to give up her seat and her efforts to clear a criminal conviction from her record, made it unavoidably apparent that racism existed in Canada. Her determination not to give in inspired others to seek racial justice. As Scott shows, Desmond, though considered uppity and a troublemaker was neither of the two.

Beck Lloyd gives a thoroughly convincing portrait of Scott’s vision of Desmond. Lloyd shows Desmond as an intelligent woman who reflects a propriety of behaviour and expects such propriety in return. She does not claim or glory in the renown she later receives. Lloyd makes this combination of practicality and prudence very appealing and in so doing makes Desmond the epitome of a Canadian hero who eschews adulation as inappropriate.

Stewart Adam McKensy plays Desmond’s husband Jack as a contrasting figure to his wife. While she is sensible, he is prone to anger and anxiety. While he would have her resolve her displeasure at the Roseland Theatre events through prayer, she believes that unfair actions must be shown to be unfair. McKensy also has a strong, deep singing voice which he lends to the shows many musical interludes.

It is great to see Wade Bogert-O’Brien, once a regular at the Shaw Festival, on stage again even if he has moved on from romantic leads to villains. Here he well plays the sleazy principal at one of the schools where Desmond taught who fires her for her innovations, but who would let her stay on, as is suggested, if she provides sexual favours. Bogert-O’Brien also gives a fine portrayal of the manager of the Roseland Theatre who, only partly conscious of his bigotry, tries to convince Desmond that coloured people are more comfortable when they sit with their own kind and that they love the view they get of the theatre from the balcony.

Starr Domingue, seen earlier this year in Red Velvet in Toronto, plays multiple roles in Controlled Damage. The two most memorable include Desmond’s most enthusiastic student at school who is one of those keeners who can’t raise her hand high enough since she knows all the answers. The other is the older version of one of Desmond’s clients who visits her in New York when Desmond is already ill. Domingue gives us a woman lovingly overflowing with admiration for Desmond and claims that Desmond is even better than Rosa Parks. All this praise, however well meant, Desmond in her typically practical manner brushes aside.

Cameron Grant plays two vivid parts, one as a schoolchild, who only after much prompting can tell Desmond the year of Confederation. The other is the Minister William Oliver, who urges Desmond to fight her unfair conviction.

Krystle Chance plays the minister’s wife Pearline, who in Scott’s depiction, is even more vigorous than the minister in persuading Desmond to fight. Chance also plays one of Desmond’s clients who questions the whole notion of hair straightening. “Why should Black people with kinky hair try to straighten it to look like White people”, she asks Desmond. Desmond can only say, “Because it looks pretty”. With this exchange Scott points out a limit in Desmond’s thinking of Black women’s beauty that Scott could have ignored. Instead, Scott brings up the topic to give us a more rounded picture of Desmond.

David Keeley’s main role is that of Desmond’s lawyer Frederick William Bissett. His authoritative voice convinces Desmond and her supporters that he knows best in trying to keep the case focussed solely on the trumped-up charge of tax evasion, but sadly, as we later learn, that focus may have prevented Desmond from winning her case. Keeley is also one of the many singers in the cast who lends his powerful voice to the shows’s musical interludes.

Designer Brian Dudkiewicz has created a set-upon-a-set, the inner set demarcated by fluorescent rods in the shape of a cube. One assumes this modern frame is meant to contrast with the events of 70 years ago and highlight their historical nature. Yet, Dudkiewicz surrounds this outline of a cube with floor-to-ceiling screen on three sides. Here George Allister and Patrick Boivin project images that relate to the themes of the play. The most brilliant effect occurs at the start of Acts 1 and 2. The screen display a live feed of patrons that day taking their seats. The point is clearly that the present-day London audience thinks nothing of taking their seats in a theatre whereas for Desmond that simple act proved to have enormous consequences.

Controlled Damage lives up to the ancient Roman view of literature that is should entertain and inform. Scott’s play with intermission lasts two hours and 20 minutes and feels that it could use some judicious cutting. Many of the scenes are separated with musical interludes – sea shanties, hymns, popular songs – which are likely meant to reinforce our feeling for the period of the play and its Maritime setting. Yet, some interludes, like an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, seem to come out of nowhere and don’t relate to the action.

Scott does show us the incident at the Roseland Theatre twice, once at the start of each act. This works well, especially before Act 2 when the whole auditorium becomes the Roseland Theatre, but further discussions of what happened that night become repetitive. So, too, are the discussions of the negative views of Desmond in the Black community. Pruning of some of the music and all of the repetitions would make Controlled Damage a tighter, more effective show. In so doing it would also become an even more powerful showcase than it already is for the unassuming woman now credited with raising awareness about unacknowledged racism in Canada.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Beck Lloyd as Viola Desmond at the Roseland Theatre, © 2023 Dahlia Katz; Viola Desmond, c. 1940. © Winnipeg Free Press; Beck Lloyd as Viola Desmond; Monique Lund, David Keeley, Beck Lloyd as Viola Desmond and Cameron Grant and Starr Domingue as salon clients; Cameron Grant as Minister William Oliver, Beck Lloyd as Viola Desmond and David Keeley as Frederick William Bissett; Beck Lloyd as Viola Desmond with the ensemble. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit