by Lynn on March 17, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Berkeley Street Theatre, a Canadian Stage and Obsidian Theatre co-production. Plays until March 26, 2023.

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury

Directed by Tawiah M’Carthy

Choreography by Pulga Muchochoma

Set design by Jawon Kang

Lighting design by Logan Cracknell

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Cast: Peter N. Bailey

Sascha Cole

Colin Doyle

Jennifer Dzialoszynski

Jeff Lillico

Chelsea Russell

Ordena Stephens-Thompson

Sophia Walker

A cheeky, challenging, provocative play about perception, assumption, race and who is doing the gazing.

The Story. Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is one smart playwright who knows how to twist and turn her audience into seeing what she wants them to see and then flips them off balance and twists them again to view something else. And being a really clever playwright, one certainly can’t give away the spoilers in this play that might perhaps explain a few things. Perhaps a bit of wiliness might be in order.

Beverly is preparing a family dinner to celebrate her mother’s birthday. There will be Dayton, Beverly’s husband, Keisha, their daughter, Mama, Jasmine, Beverly’s sister and Tyrone, their brother who is flying in to be there.

But everything seems to go wrong for Beverly and everyone else it seems in that house.

The Production. NOTE: This is how playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury sets up her play:

“Acts: Act One appears to be a comedic family drama; Act Two watches Act One. Act Two pushes further into Act One and tries to drive it forward to make Act Three.

Jackie Sibblies Drury also has this first stage direction: “Lights up on a negro: Beverly is peeling carrots, real carrots.”   This is the clue that the audience is watching a Black family prepare for this birthday party.

Jawong Kang has designed a stylish living room/dining room in a two-story house, in a good neighbourhood, according to the stage directions. The room and the furnishings are white or off-white but the long drapes over the big windows are a light green. There are empty picture frames hanging on the wall, but that can be a designer’s idea. The table is set for six, sort of.

Director Tawiah M’Carthy has kept a light hand on the proceedings but a keen sense of detail, attention and a strong sense of humour. There are many traps in the play that can upend the proceedings but M’Cathy avoids every one of them. Smart work.

Beverly (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) is peeling and cutting carrots at the dining room table while listening to dance music on the radio.  There is a momentary glitch in the radio’s reception but that catches Beverly’s attention. Her husband Dayton (Peter N. Bailey) brings in the wrong cutlery for the table. Beverly frets that Dayton did not buy the root vegetables as she asked. She calls after him in the kitchen three times to get his attention. He finally comes into the dining room with a bag of the vegetables. Beverly frets that it takes an hour to prepare those root vegetables and she’s not dressed. Then her stylish sister Jasmine (Sophia Walker, being pointed, watchful and hilarious) arrives bringing a bottle of wine and her condescending attitude towards her sister.  This sends Beverly into a tizzy. She wants the evening to be a success but then gets a call from Tyrone that he won’t be able to make it because his flight is delayed. Beverly and Dayton’s daughter, Keisha (Chelsea Russell giving a perceptive, nuanced performance) arrives home from a school practice. She wants to take a gap year before she begins college and asks her aunt’s help in convincing her mother. Beverly is adamant that Keisha go directly to college, perhaps assuming that if she takes the gap year, she won’t go at all.

Interestingly, both Dayton and Jasmine suggest that Beverly is hyper-anxious and perhaps distraught. As Beverly, Ordena Stephens-Thompson is lively, caught up in the music so that she dances and sways to it. She is also focused, and aware of what needs to be done. She gets so hyper-excited she faints. Is Beverly really anxious, or is that the perception of her husband and sister?

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury has created a first act that sounds and looks like a situation comedy. Why is Beverly peeling and chopping carrots at the dining room table and not in the kitchen? They do have a kitchen. Beverly frets that she’s not dressed yet for the evening. Why would she be since the preparations aren’t finished?  Do you peel and chop carrots when you are dressed up?

The table isn’t set yet cause Dayton hasn’t brought in the proper cutlery. Beverly has asked him to get root vegetables and asks him three times before he brings a bag into the dining room, with said veggies. Beverly frets that the root vegetables take an hour to prepare. And Jasmine has arrived, wonderfully dressed in a colourful frock (kudos to Rachel Forbes for the costumes). With all this fretting and all the preparation still to be done, one wonders at what time this dinner is supposed to happen, and why has Jasmine arrived ‘hours’ early it seems? Stuff that Jackie Sibblies Drury gets you to think about.

And then she gets you to think more.

In Act II everything that was said and acted in Act I is repeated only silently, as the cast mouths their speeches and repeats the motions. At the same time there is dialogue playing over this scene by unseen characters who talk about race and switching etc. and then get more and more offensive about race. One gets the sense that the unseen characters are white. In a clever bit of theatrical invention playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury makes it look like/perception the family is actually speaking these offensive lines. Clever and wonderfully unbalancing.

And then we have Act III that really pulls the rug out from under the viewer—one of many rug-pullings that make one think that rug must be threadbare by now with such use. Let me try and keep the spoiler some extent. Now the proceedings take on a farcical tone. Characters arrive at the dinner—Tyrone (Colin A. Doyle) and Mama (Sascha Cole and Jennifer Dzialoszynski) etc. Another tweak at perception—Tyrone is a lawyer. Colin A. Doyle who is greeted as “Tyrone” at the door wears a baseball cap sideways, is in neon clothes, struts and jive talks. All the guests are white. Beverly and family greet them without concern. Only Keisha is confused because she knows this is not her family. And then Jackie Sibblies Drury goes from there.

There is a final extraordinary speech I can’t talk about—spoiler alert. Jackie Sibblies Drury completing her final coup de theatre which references previous speeches and perceptions and misrepresentations. So now we have challenges to perceptions, assumptions and racist stereotypes about Black people, the white gaze, various races, all from the gaze of an African American playwright. Discuss.  

Comment. While it’s interesting to see how playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury plays factions of her audience against each other and against or for her playful/deliberate challenges to part of the audience, I’m not sure the last speech is really supported by the play. Still it’s wonderfully interesting watching this gifted playwright pull the strings on her award winning work.

A Canadian Stage and Obsidian Theatre co-production:

Opened: March 10, 2023

Closes: March 26, 2023

Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

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