Review: SERVING ELIZABETH, Stratford Festival.

by Lynn on September 8, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person under the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy, Stratford, Ont. Until September 26, 2021.

Written by Marcia Johnson

Directed by Kimberley Rampersad

Set by Tamara Marie Kucheran

Costumes by A.W. Nadine Grant

Lighting by Michel Charbonneau

Composer, Debashis Sinha

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Sean Arbuckle

Arlene Duncan

Cameron Grant

Virgilia Griffith

Sara Topham

Roy Lewis

Serving Elizabeth asks provocative questions worth exploring but by setting the play in two time periods that shift back and forth with each scene, the weight of the issues is weakened.

The Story: From the Stratford Festival program notes:


In Kenya in 1952, Mercy, a restaurant proprietor, is hired to cater the impending visit of Princess Elizabeth, soon to be Queen. In 2015, another story unfolds in London, England, where a young Kenyan-born Canadian, Tia, is working as an intern on a TV drama series about the British royal family – while also pursuing a writing project of her own. These parallel narratives seem only coincidentally connected – until a surprising twist reveals a deeper relationship between the two. The play explores issues of colonialism, nationalism and the question of who gets to have a voice.”

In both the 1952 sections and the 2015 section the story initially is being told and managed by white voices to the exclusion of black voices. And then two Black women—Mercy in Kenya1952 and Tia in London in 2015 decide to correct the exclusion.

The Production. The audience is on both sides of the playing area under the Tom Patterson Theatre Canopy. At one end of Tamara Marie Kucheran’s set is a grand archway, suggesting the Lodge where Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip will stay and on the other end is Mercy’s restaurant/living quarters (?) with shelving, on which are memorabilia, at least in the section facing me. I can’t attest to what the other side of the canopy was looking at.

Kenya, 1952. A smartly dress man in a stylish hat, tan suit, shirt, tie, vest and highly polished shoes, enters Mercy’s restaurant. There is a sound effect of beads clinking together. One pictures that several(unseen) suspended strings of beads hang in the restaurant’s doorway, acting as a door. Talbot ‘passing’ through the beads is what produces the sound. Interesting but used only for the restaurant scenes.

Talbot (Sean Arbuckle), an emissary of the Royal Family who has come to check out Mercy’s (Arlene Duncan) cooking in order to engage her to cook for the royal visit. He is met by Faith (Virgilia Griffith) Mercy’s daughter. Faith is eager, gracious and welcoming. Talbot is formal and polite. He sits at a table. He orders several Kenyan dishes. He tastes a forkful of each and makes a note.

When Mercy sees Talbot she is incensed.   He’s British and white and she doesn’t want him in her restaurant. She is still raging at the British rule in Kenya and mindful of the women’s resistance in the past. There are also rumblings of a Mau Mau uprising that will take place after the Princess’ visit. All of this weighs on Mercy. Faith acts as a buffer between Talbot, who just wants to do his job, and Mercy who wants to voice her concern.

London, 2015. The table where Talbot sat and the chair are now re-arranged for these scenes. Tia (Virgilia Griffith) is a Kenyan-Canadian who is working on a British TV series on the Royal Family (The Crown) written by a white, British playwright/screenwriter named Maurice Gilder (Sean Arbuckle). Over the course of these scenes Tia becomes concerned that in a section of the series that takes place in Kenya no attention is given to Black characters other than background. They do not have a voice. Tia plans on correcting that.

At one point Tia comments that Gilder has so many scene changes that it’s hard to keep track of where they are in the story. The same could be said of Marcia Johnson’s play and Kimberley Rampersad’s busy direction of it.

Johnson has structured her play so that each scene alternates in taking place in either Kenya in 1952 or London in 2015. My general impression of the staging is of the actors endlessly pushing a table here or there along with the chairs to suggest either location and time period. I think this weakens the importance of both time periods in the play and constantly shifts our attention away from issues. It would have been a much stronger play if Act I took place in Kenya in 1952 for context and Act II took place in London, 2015.

At times we are told information that happened to characters that affected them in the past, rather than seeing them happen in order to make scenes work. Such declarations made my eye-brows knit in concern regarding the play.  

I also found that Rampersad directed her actors generally to be declarative rather than naturalistic. This made for a ponderous, laboured production generally. There are specific moments of lovely acting. Arlene Duncan as Mercy is fearless in her determination to be heard. Virgilia Griffith brings her usual attention to detail to her committed performance. As Princess Elizabeth, Sara Topham gave her a straight-back regality and cool consideration. Special kudos to A.W. Nadine Grant for the beautiful, effective costumes that also added to the personalities.

Comment.  Playwright Marcia Johnson was watching the part of the British TV series, The Crown, that covered Princess Elizabeth’s visit to Kenya and was livid when not one Black voice was represented or heard. That was the impetus for her writing Serving Elizabeth.

Marcia Johnson presents a provocative situation in both time periods when Princess Elizabeth and British playwright, Maurice Gilder don’t consider the Black voice until both Mercy and Tia,  tell them the error of their ways. Of course including the Black voice seems so obvious to us, the audience, but not to these two white characters. It’s not that Princess Elizabeth and Gilder are deliberately excluding the Black voice it’s that it has not occurred to them in their blinkered worlds until they are told.  How many times had we in Canada been called ‘the colonies’ with disdain by a British voice? So when Princess Elizabeth goes to Kenya, a British colony, the attitude is the same. Until two feisty Black women with smarts and clear thinking set them straight in.

 If Serving Elizabeth says anything clearly and simply it’s that direct communication, urgent talking, is the way to set the record straight and get your point across—as happened in two specific scenes, one with Mercy and Princess Elizabeth and one with Tia and Gilder. I just wish the play was stronger and less confusing in leading up to these scenes.    

Serving Elizabeth was developed at the Thousand Islands Playhouse, in Gananoque where it will have a new production beginning in October. I look forward to seeing that production there.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Plays until: September 26, 2021.

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes, no intermission.

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1 Александра September 11, 2021 at 11:36 am

Mariana Johnson is associate professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where she teaches courses in Latin American Cinema, History of Documentary, Hitchcock, and Film Theory, among other subjects. A former Fulbright Scholar, Johnson was awarded the Grand Marnier Film Fellowship from the Film Society of Lincoln Center and was a visiting scholar at the Instituto Riva-Aguero in Lima, Peru. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse is a translator, poet, and teacher who has lived and worked in Iraq for the last six years. She served as the founding chair of the English Department at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). She received an MFA at Warren Wilson College and MEd from the University of Virginia.