Review: Controlled Damage

by Lynn on January 25, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont. Until Jan. 29.

Written by Andrea Scott

Director and movement director, Ray Hogg

Music Director/composer, Alexandra Kane

Set by Brian Dudkiewicz

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Jareth Li

Sound by Richard Feren

Projection design by Videocompany

Wade Bogert-O’Brien

Krystle Chance

Starr Domingue

Cameron Grant

Kaylee Harwood

David Keeley

Dominique Leblanc

Beck Lloyd

Monique Lund

Gracie Mack

Stewart Adam McKensy

Danté Prince

Andrea Scott has written an informative, illuminating play about Viola Desmond and the racism she endured in Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, the play is not done justice because of Ray Hogg’s unnecessarily fussy, distracting, attention-grabbing direction.


I watched, with envy, as playwright Andrea Scott regularly posted on Twitter, her journey to get her play, Controlled Damage produced two years ago at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It’sa fascinating play about Viola Desmond, the Canadian civil rights icon, who was from Halifax, so to produce it there was a no brainer. Its run was hugely successful, selling out before it even opened—I suspect that Andrea Scott’s determination to keep the play in the mind’s eye, had a lot to do with its success. And of course, one wants to see the play in Toronto.

The second production of the play was scheduled last year for the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. Andrea Scott’s home town, but COVID postponed that production until this year.

I did the next best thing to reviewing a production of the play, I reviewed (March, 2021) the published text of Controlled Damage and I suspect that Scott had a lot to do with getting it published so quickly.

From the blurb on the text: “Controlled Damage explores the life of Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond and how her act of bravery in a Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1946 started a ripple effect that is still felt today. An ordinary woman forced to be extraordinary by an unyielding and racist world. Desmond never gave up—despite the personal cost to her and those who loved her. Andrea Scott’s highly theatrical examination of Desmond and her legacy traces the impact she has had on our culture, but also casts light on the slow progress of the fight for social justice and civil rights in Canada.”

One of the positive aspects of Viola Desmond’s fight for justice is that her story is now known across the country and she is commemorated on the $10 bill.

The Story. Viola Desmond had a rich and varied career. What was consistent with each change is that she excelled in whatever she tried. She was tenacious, determined, inventive, creative and independent. She trained as a teacher in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As Andrea Scott establishes in Controlled Damage, Viola was compassionate, gifted and understanding towards her students. As a Black woman she was fully aware of the world of subtle racism to which those students were subjected.  In 1932 Viola Desmond was an eighteen-year-old Black woman when a white superintendent made advances on her that were unwanted.  In this situation she stood her ground with resolve.

By 1936 she left teaching to study in Montreal to become a beautician. Her dream was to have her own beauty parlor and create a line of cosmetic products for Black women. She was also in love with Jack Desmond also from Halifax, a man who typically wanted his wife to stay at home and tend her household ‘duties’ while he made the money.  She wanted to finish her studies. Viola got her way. Jack had his own barbershop and eventually Viola opened her own beauty parlor; created her line of beauty products for Black women and also taught other Black women how to be beautician. Viola began travelling all over Nova Scotia selling and delivering her beauty products.

It was on one of those trips to Sydney, Nova Scotia that her car broke down in New Glasgow. The repair job required that Viola stay the night. On Nov. 8, 1946, Viola went to the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow to see a movie. She bought a ticket and sat downstairs, as she always did in Halifax, to be close to the screen because she was near sighted. 

A female usher told her she had to move to the balcony because she was not allowed to sit downstairs. Viola showed the usher the ticket and was prepared to pay the difference. That was not the issue. The usher said, “Coloureds don’t sit down here.” Such a policy didn’t exist in Halifax. There were no signs to that effect in the Roseland Theatre. 

Viola understood immediately. She sat there, quietly defiant and continued to watch the film. The Manager came and Desmond would not move. Then the police came and forcibly removed her from the theatre. She was injured in the transaction. She spent the night in jail. The charge was that she did not pay the proper one cent tax on the ticket. She was found guilty. There were appeals that went badly.  Her church reverend wanted her to fight the case and try another appeal. It went to the Supreme Court and was denied because of that technicality of the tax instead of the veiled/unspoken racism of having Blacks sit in the balcony. There were consequences after the trial. Both Jack’s barbershop and Viola’s beauty parlor suffered losses of business. Life was difficult. The marriage suffered.

Controlled Damage is not about the trial as the central theme. It’s about the world that Viola Desmond lived in, the racism she endured from whites and Blacks and the kind of determined woman she was.

The Production. The play takes place between 1917 and 1965, with most of the scenes taking place in 1946. One wonders, then, why set designer Brian Dudkiewicz chose to create an ultramodern square structure made of connected rods suggesting the outline of walls, that were then illuminated in neon. And if you sat on the side of the theatre or perhaps even in the middle, what was projected on the side and back walls might be obscured by the rods. It certainly made reading some of the information on the projections difficult. This structure sat on a raised playing area. Chairs are situated on either side of the playing area. The cast sit there when not in a scene.

Simple set pieces, chairs, a chaise, etc. are carried on and off efficiently. Why then is the outline of the structure necessary?

For some reason, director Ray Hogg has a woman in a coat, shoes and gloves enter the playing area and sit quietly in a chair, center stage as the audience fills in. At one point she takes off her shoes and carefully places them in front of the chair. She walks around.  Why? Who is she? The play hasn’t started so who is she and why is she there? We learn it’s Viola Desmond later on, but what are we to make of her presence before? Mystifying, and never explained.

The first scene of the play takes place Dec. 6, 1917, when Viola is 3-years-old.  Two ships collide in the narrow Halifax Harbour. One was carrying 2925 tons of munitions. There was an explode and the blast killed 2000 and injured hundreds. Three-year-old Viola was in her highchair in the kitchen, with her back to the window. When her father rushed in to see how she was, she was slumped over, the window blind fell on her head and she was covered in glass and she was not moving.  But she was alive. Her father James said: “It’s a miracle, Viola survived that blast. She was spared because the Lord had big plans for my little girl.” Her mother said, “Viola Irene Davis. The girl who lived.” (“The Girl Who Lived” is projected on the back wall). Indeed, that steely resolve at three years-old, imbued her character for her whole life.

This is a very intricate scene that playwright Andrea Scott has fashioned. In the text the scene is noted with the heading: “The Girl Who Lived.” The stage direction is simple: “Multiple spotlights highlight the chorus.” The chorus is noted as “Character A, Character B, and so on until F. But all the characters in the play are indicated in the text as to who they are by name, how old they are etc. Initially each member of the chorus speaks one line in turn that sets up the details of what happened Dec. 1917. Then various characters enter and speak one line of how they were affected (Viola’s father, mother etc.) interspersed with members of the chorus. As I said, it’s intricate.

In the programme at The Grand Theatre all the characters are noted as Woman 1, 2, 3 etc. as are the men, 1, 2, 3. Only Viola (Beck Lloyd)  Jack (Stewart Adam McKensy) and the Fiddler (Dominique Leblanc) are noted by name. So, unless one knows who each actor is already to identify who they are also playing during the production, one is out of luck in trying to figure out the name of the character they are playing.

Rather than keep it simple, with the chorus speaking in place, (“Multiple spotlights highlight the chorus,”) director and movement director, Ray Hogg has his chorus of at least nine, flitting all over the stage while saying their one line in turn. Keeping track of who is talking and what they are actually saying clearly is challenging, to say the least. A lot of the story is lost in what turns out to be confusing rather than illuminating.

Viola was a gifted, committed teacher to her students and used clever ways to teach them. One day the superintendent (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) came in to her class to observe and criticized her for the way she was teaching—having the children throw a ball to coax out a fact—and what she was teaching—about the provinces and slavery. He said they were not renewing her contract but if she was more accommodating to him, sweeter, she could keep her job. He attempted to stroke her cheek and she told him in no uncertain terms not to do that.

Andrea Scott is measured in the information of the scene and spare in the way the superintendent made advances. Ray Hogg however, directs the scene with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Not only does the superintendent come on to Viola by stroking her cheek, but he also begins to unbuckle his belt and take out part of his tucked in shirt, until a student comes in and interrupts his intention.  Overkill direction to make one suck air and cover one’s eyes.  I felt the same way about a scene in Act II when Ray Hogg has three women dance on stage, throw popcorn in the air and soon after return pushing big brooms in an elaborate dance to sweep up the popcorn. Again, Andrea Scott wrote a simple scene. Ray Hogg’s distracting direction/choreography blew it up.

Projections from Videocompany are also problematic. In the text each scene has a heading to describe it: “Truth and Fiction,” for example. There is also a date and location indicating when and where the scene took place. In the production it would have been simple, efficient and clear to have a projection on the back and side walls of the stage with the heading and the date and place. But not here…..The heading is projected on the back wall and the date and place are projected on the two side walls. One had to be quick to read them. One also had to be lucky nothing obstructed one’s view—from my seat, one of the set’s neon rods always cut off some part of the information on the side wall.

In the text, Andrea Scott ends one of the scenes with the caption: “…multiple images of historic, Black Canadians are projected on the set.” Videocompany clutters the idea by projecting the names (not the images) of historic, Black Canadians plus who they were in smaller print.  There seemed to be different names on different parts of the walls, so one didn’t have enough time to read them all and note who they are. A shame. That information would have been important to read and consider.

As Viola, Beck Lloyd is poised, composed, clear, confident and in control. She illuminates Viola’s resolve, her tenacity, compassion and concern for her students and the Black women she serves as her clients. It’s a nuanced and multi-dimensional performance that towers over the production. The other actors for the most part seem to be directed to over-act or give overly broad performances.  

Andrea Scott illuminates the kind of person Viola was. In her quiet way Viola Desmond (née Davis) was a pioneer as a Black business woman leading the way for others. She was not only a beautician, she created products for Black women and build a business that sold them. It’s noted in the play that you would not find a Black beautician working in a white beauty parlor. But such was Viola’s ability and reputation that she had white and Black customers.

Andrea Scott has written a compelling, thought-provoking, complex play. She explores the racism a Black person had to endure, certainly as it pertained to Viola in that theatre. Scott also explores reverse racism—of her Black friends who consider her “uppity” and “putting on airs” because she’s part white. They don’t want the added attention of this woman who wanted justice for what happened to her at the cinema. They want to forget the incident and go on with their lives.

Scott has fashioned the play as if it was Greek in nature—huge issues are explored—with a Greek chorus that represents the people. Her dialogue is sharp, smart, and vivid.  Viola’s case was taken up with her minister (a dignified Cameron Grant)  and his wife (a determined Krystle Chance) who said: “Everything is not fine. Being tolerated isn’t enough….As long as we stay silent and let people disrespect our right to live with dignity we’re going to our graves unhappy, dissatisfied and broken.”

Scott also explores the politics of skin colour and the nuances in descriptions. Viola was light-skinned because she was of mixed race: her mother was white and her father was Black. A young student of Viola’s who was darker skinned challenged her about how they were treated differently. There are also pointed comments on wanting to straighten hair to look ‘whiter’. The source of the title Controlled Damage is also interesting. A cream is applied to Black hair to straighten it. “…what we’re doing is breaking down the natural strength in Black hair in order to make it smooth and manageable, which is called controlled damage.” The same could be a metaphor for racism to keep a person of colour down, under one’s thumb and ‘manageable.’

Scott also illuminates the subtle difference between the word “Negro” and its connection to slavery, and the word “coloured” to note the difference and create a distance from slavery.

Comment. As noted in the play, Viola Desmond wasn’t an activist. She says she wasn’t a “Rosa Parks” (who was a true activist and was tireless in her pursuit in changing a racist system). She did continue to take her case higher up the legal ladder because as she says: “I did nothing wrong.”  In fact it was others who continued Viola Desmond’s cause long after she died (in 1965 in New York City when she was only 50). But because of the racism she experienced Viola got people to notice and fight for a change. Having her face on the $10 seems a small victory, since racism is still with us in all its ugliness. Still Controlled Damage is an important, necessary play that informs us of how much further we need to go in race relations.

Andrea Scott’s play is terrific. The play deserves to be seen across the country in a much better production, definitely with another director and designer.

The Grand Theatre presents:

Plays until: January 29, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with 1 intermission).

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