Review: SERVING ELIZABETH, Thousand Islands Playhouse

by Lynn on October 13, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Firehall Theatre of the Thousand Islands Playhouse, Ganaoque, Ont. until October 30, 2021.

Written by Marcia Johnson

Directed by Marcel Stewart

Set and costumes designed by Rachel Forbes

Sound by Andrew Penner

Lighting by Echo Zhou

Cast: Shannon Currie

Jordin Hall

Marcia Johnson

Makambe K Simamba

Andy Trithardt

The Story. The story takes place in two time periods in two places: 1952 in Kenya and in 2015 in London, England. In 1952 in Kenya, Mercy a restaurant owner, is hired to cook for the impending visit of Princess Elizabeth (soon to be Queen) and the Duke of Edinburgh.  

 In 2015, in London, England, Tia a young Kenyan-born Canadian, is working as an intern on a TV drama series about the British royal family (think The Crown) – while also pursuing a writing project of her own.

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

Comment. In his program note, director Marcel Stewart writes: “Our play…explores many themes—roots and inheritance, family loss and succession, female leadership, to name a few. Perhaps the most interesting though is that of perspective. This story could be about Princess Elizabeth’s visit to Kenya, where she would ultimately become queen, and it can also be about a country on the precipice of a liberation movement in the quest for independence from its colonial oppressors.

Serving Elizabeth challenges out thinking by showing us a world where the past is present and the present is past. Tia’s journey forward taking a stand against Maurice Gilder runs parallel with the story of Mercy and Faith’s service to Elizabeth. By telling this story Marcia critically examines the significance of liberating ourselves through imagination, a notion not often afforded to marginalized people living in the western world. This play uses representation and imagination to reconsider how we tell stories about colonialism.”

In her programme note, playwright Marcia Johnson explains where her idea for the play came from. She was watching an episode of The Crown. “I found out about the Thousand Islands Playhouse Playwrights’ unit colonial-themed Call for Submissions the day after I saw The Crown’s Kenya episode where African characters were firmly in the background. Writing a play was just what I needed to vent my frustration while giving voice to under-represented people. My hope is that audiences will question what we have all accepted as the official story.”

Serving Elizabeth has been nurtured, developed and now programmed by the Thousand Islands Playhouse. The journey comes full circle with a few stops along the way, one being at the Stratford Festival for the 2021 season.

The Production. I was intrigued to see this production at the Thousand Islands Playhouse because playwright Marcia Johnson was playing Mercy. She certainly brings a wealth and depth of emotion to the part. Her playing of Mercy is spirited, feisty and full of dignity.

The audience sits on three sides of the playing area. Rachel Forbes has created a set in which there are two arched entrances, one upstage and one downstage. There is a table and chairs downstage right (if one is sitting in the centre of the house) which look like they would be for the Kenya (1952) scenes. There is also a ceiling fan that revolves in the Kenya scenes. Upstage left, (if one is in the centre of the house) is a table and sturdy office chairs suggesting these would be for the London (2015) scenes.

At first I thought that director Marcel Stewart and lighting designer Echo Zhou were going to indicate the different time periods and locations with lighting cues on the different areas of the set. This would have simplified matters rather than re-arranging furniture for each scene. However the latter was the way of changing locations etc. The cast did a lot of moving of tables and chairs for different locations.

Also, I thought it would have been helpful for there to be some notification in the programme of the two different time periods and the locations, or lighting cues with that information flashed on the three sides of the set. The issues are so important that even a second of confusion takes away from them.

The cast is confident and compelling. Makambe K Simamba as Faith in the Kenya scenes and Tia in the London scenes establishes her characters’ attitudes and convictions with clarity and economy. Andy Trithardt  plays Talbot in the Kenya scenes with the respectful diplomacy, as a representative of the Royal Family. Marcia Johnson has written him with compassion. Trithardt also plays Maurice Gilder in the London scenes, and he plays him with that touch of arrogance and condescension. Jordin Hall plays both Montague and Steven with distinct definition. Shannon Currie is a regal, cool Princess Elizabeth until Mercy breaks through that coolness to reveal a woman who wants to listen and make a difference. She also plays Robin in the London scenes, as an ambitious woman who seems to want to give Tia an opportunity to get ahead.    

Comment. 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 story becomes confusing and the weight of the issues is weakened. It did get me thinking that if the two time periods were separate on their own the arguments would be made and context established clearly. Still, I am glad I saw this production and hope more people see it as well.

Produced by Thousand Islands Playhouse:

Plays until Oct. 30, 2021.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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