by Lynn on January 20, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer


l-r: Meghan Swaby, Carolyn Fe
Photo: Dahlia Katz







At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Audrey Dwyer

Set by Anne Treusch

Costumes by Jackie Chau

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Composer and sound design by Johnny Salib

Cast: Don Allison

Matthew Brown

Carolyn Fe

Natasha Greenblatt

Andrew Moodie

Meghan Swaby

A play with good intentions to examine racism, privilege, entitlement and appropriation, to name a few, that falls short because playwright Audrey Dwyer’s focus is too scattered and too skewered in some cases.

The Story. Julie Gordon (Meghan Swaby) is a young twenty-something screenwriter on a tight deadline to write a screenplay “seeking to redress To Kill a Mockingbird through the perspective of Calpurnia – the Finch family maid.” (The words in quotes are from the press release. Right away I see a problem of definition—the novel describes Calpurnia as the “cook”—a huge modern societal, economic and hierarchical difference from the word “maid.” But I digress.)

Julie comes from a wealthy Jamaican-Canadian family. She lives in the family Forest Hill home with her father Lawrence (Andrew Moodie), a retired judge. He came to Canada with his family when he was three-years-old and never went back.  Julie’s mother died when she and her brother Mark were young.  Mark (Matthew Brown) is an up and coming lawyer who has just been profiled in a major article in the newspaper. Lawrence will be hosting a dinner party later that day in which the Senior Partner of a major law firm will be the guest of honour, with the intension that Mark joins that law firm. Never mind that Mark is happy at the firm where he is now, his father says he “can do better at a better law firm.” Mark lives with his white girlfriend Christine (Natasha Greenblatt), who is also a good friend of Julie. Taking care of the Gordon family is Precy (Carolyn Fe) the housekeeper who has been with the family since the children were very small. Precy is from the Philippines.

Much is revealed about the family dynamic as they prepare for the dinner party and for some reason Julie sabotages it in a pretty despicable way.

The Production.  The audience sits on either side of the long playing are. Anna Treusch has created a set that perfectly puts us in the rich world of the Gordon family. On one end is a raised kitchen area with a large, gleaming fridge, smart cabinetry, a central cooking island providing a counter and chairs for a quick bite. In the middle section is a long dining-room table, beautifully appointed with table ornaments. There is the ‘detritus’ of a dinner from the night before, when Lawrence celebrated Mark’s article in the newspaper: plates with left over food, wine/champagne glasses, two empty bottles of Veuve Clicquot. There is also a closed computer at one end of the table.

At the other end of the set is a living room with comfortable chairs, a few end tables and pictures on the wall, one of which is a photo of Lawrence’s late wife. An alcove on the other side of the wall indicates the entrance to the home.

Julie enters quickly from some part of the house, sits at the dining table, puts down a stack of reference books on the table and opens the computer. She is dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie. She writes (taps) with energy and intensity. Distraction is all around her. Precy wants to engage her in conversation but Julie tells her she has a deadline and has to write. Precy disregards her and continues talking.

Lawrence, dressed sportingly in athletic pants, t-shirt and a jacket, is obviously a take-charge kind of guy. He queries Julie about her progress; if she’s filed her various versions of her screenplay in folders or not; and moves her away from the computer so he can show her how to do it, even though she’s said she knows how.

Mark is dressed in casual chic, pants, t-shirt and blazer. He reads what Julie has written and is appalled. Julie feels To Kill a Mockingbird is a racist book and that Calpurnia is a caricature. Mark disagrees. The book and film are his favourites and he contradicts several instances in Julie’s screenplay that are not in the original book. For example: Julie has Atticus Finch hit Calpurnia and treats her badly which is not true in the original.

Julie questions whether Harper Lee, a white woman, had the right to write about black characters such as Calpurnia.  Mark also argues this point too. Interestingly, later in the play Christine asks Julie why she feels she can write about white people since she’s black, seemingly missing her own point from before about Harper Lee appropriating the black voice of Calpurnia. Julie says that she’s studied white people and has observed them and that gives her the right to write about them. Hmmmmm.

We get a sense of Julie’s blinkered agenda being imposed on a classic book in her screenplay. Julie is imposing a modern perspective on a classic that takes place in the 1930s without being able to put anything in context except her rigid perspective. She can’t evaluate the book on its own terms, in its own time period and instead is determined to apply a modern racist agenda on a classic that does sustain it. Mark vociferously expresses his dismay that his sister is distorting To Kill A Mockingbird in her screenplay for her own narrow focus.  Julie replies with equal ire.

Christine also reminds Julie that they usually go to St. Barts to celebrate their late mothers, but again, Julie says she can’t because of the writing deadline. Christine persists in the request.

Talk about a fraught atmosphere. What is clear is that no one in that family has any respect for Julie’s need to meet her deadline. There are constant interruptions regardless of Julie’s insistence that she has to finish her screenplay.

The logical question is: why doesn’t Julie just go to her office/room and write? But then the need for Audrey Dwyer as playwright and director to establish this fraught atmosphere wouldn’t work. So for the sake of creating an emotional situation, the character of Julie looks silly and not a serious writer. Hmmmmm.

Julie interviews Precy about her life and work; if she likes her work; if she goes home to the Philippines often. Precy looks incredulous at the questions and so do we. Precy has been with that family since before their mother died. She has cooked, cleaned,  changed diapers and taken care of them for their whole lives. The fascinating thing is that Julie doesn’t seem to know any of this from her questions. Also when Precy asks Julie if she wants anything to eat, Julie just plops herself down at the counter, waiting to be served, when she’s perfectly capable of getting food herself. Is this Dwyer showing us Julie’s sense of privilege?

Julie disrupts the dinner party in a most despicable way and yet when she is asked why she did it, she has no answer, just a tightly clenched jaw. Why is that? Is she that jealous of her brother and doesn’t want him to succeed? He already has, on his own. I wonder what Dwyer’s intention is with this decision.

Dwyer directs Meghan Swaby as Julie seemingly to be a one-noted, bellowing, ill-tempered harpy.  How do you take Julie seriously as a result? Is that the point?  Why?

Matthew Brown as Mark is grounded, emotional and thoughtful. I’m grateful to Dwyer for providing such an eloquent opponent to Julie’s invective.

Andrew Moodie as Lawrence, is a conglomeration of physical tics (hand clapping to emphasize a decision, laboured sighs before answering a question). Carolyn Fe plays Precy as a matter-of-fact, feisty woman with character and backbone, unafraid to voice her displeasure at what’s happening around her. Natasha Greenblatt plays Christine as a person in a tricky situation, wanting to fit into that family and being solicitous and defensive to what’s going on around her. Don Allison is suave and cool as James, the high-powered lawyer that Lawrence wants his son to impress.

Each of the six characters could have a whole play devoted to them individually.

Comment. Playwright Audrey Dwyer has set up the Gordon family along the same lines as the Finch family in To Kill a Mockingbird. The fathers in both are widowers who worked in law. Both have two children, a boy and a girl. Both families are cared for by a person of colour. The difference is that the Finch family are described as poor and white and the Gordon family are wealthy and Jamaican-Canadian.

There are times when Precy stands her ground and puts Julie in her place for her bad behaviour—just as Calpurnia did to Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. I love the echoes there in Audrey Dwyer’s writing.

I found it interesting that for all his professed care and love for his family, Lawrence doesn’t have any respect? belief? in his children’s abilities to get ahead on their own. He arranged for the newspaper article to be written about Mark. He arranges the dinner party so Mark can ‘present’ himself to James, the high-powered senior partner of an illustrious law firm, in the hopes Mark will be invited to join them. Lawrence arranges for an agent to accept Julie as a client in spite of her seemingly not having published anything. Indeed Lawrence tells James that Julie is a professional writer because she has an agent. Her brother Mark says that Julie has never actually had a job. Mind-boggling even for children of privilege, or perhaps I’m naïve.

Over the course of the play a uniform point is that every character, be they black or white, reveals racist tendencies, in other words to quote Avenue Q.  “everyone’s a little bit racist.” So perhaps that’s what Dwyer is trying to say—we are all a little bit racist.  I don’t need a jumble of a play to tell us what we already know, whether intentional or by insensitive error.

Over the course of the six years of writing Calpurnia Audrey Dwyer wanted to examine such topics as: Mammy culture, the loyalty people have to To Kill A Mockingbird, “how American Blackness trumps Canadian Blackness when we consider what it means to be Black”, and to “examine Canada, Canadians and how we deal with issues of race, class and gender.” I look forward to any one of these five possible plays that Dwyer might write in the future.

But for Calpurnia it’s a jumble of hot-button topics that needs more focus and distillation. Alas I found it disappointing.

Produced by Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre.

Opened: Jan. 17, 2018

Closes: Feb. 4, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes.


Leave a Comment

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eleanor O'Connor January 23, 2018 at 10:46 pm

Unfortunately You are right. The word ion my lips as I left was inauthentic.


2 Judith Green February 4, 2018 at 8:06 am

Hello Lynn. Your review really nails it, articulating all the things about the play a person might feel but being much lesser gifted than you can’t put into words. Drove into Toronto yesterday to miss the snow so I could be here for my book club today. Friends were going to see the play and I lucked into a ticket being returned when I went with them to the theatre after our dinner together on Yonge Street. Coincidentally Catherine Hernandez who was involved with the production is the author of the book my Litwits group will be talking about today – “Scarborough.” It’s not at all that borough of Toronto I grew up in 50 years ago! Its depiction in the book is the polar opposite of the Forest Hill milieu of last night’s play.
Best regards,