Tween-friendly theatre dealing with death and race, Pacamambo is playing at Toronto’s Citadel
I was pleased to be able to borrow a real live young person to attend The Canadian Rep Theatre’s production of Pacamambo, by Wajdi Mouawad. It’s a play written for young people – advertised as being for ages 9 to 99 – but it deals with some very dark subject matter. Julie, played by Amy Keating, is a young girl who adores her grandmother, played by Kyra Harper. She is staying at her grandmother’s apartment one night when the old woman dies. Julie barricades herself into the basement of the building with her faithful dog Growl, the corpse, and a backpack full of perfume that she uses over the next nineteen days to mask the stench of decay. The story is told in flashbacks as she relates it to a psychiatrist.
This could easily be the set up for a grotesque horror film but instead it’s a sensitive and layered meditation on what death – and race – mean to people, especially young people.
Julie’s grandmother has told her of a land called Pacamambo, where no one is judged by the colour of their skin. In fact, in Pacamambo you get to choose what race you are. The complications of this concept are thought-provoking, and the scene where Julie, a white girl, announces that she is now black to her black psychiatrist (played by the great Karen Robinson), is both funny and nuanced.
When I asked my companion afterward if the play was too dark for her, she answered “no, it was really interesting,” and I didn’t get the impression she was saying “interesting” as I may sometimes use it, as polite code for “deeply flawed”. She seemed genuinely interested in the action and ideas of Pacamambo. Then I remembered that pre-teens are aware of death – and race – and are grappling with those issues as much, if not more, than adults are.
The show is staged very dramatically, with one fixed door fixed in place at one end of the alley stage. A dresser and a bedframe are moved around to create vivid tableaus. One such moment is when Julie finally works up the nerve to close her grandmother’s eyes, which she does through the spokes of the upside-down bed frame, as if reaching though the bars of a prison cell. But what is the prison – is it death? Or is it the world, where people are judged by their exteriors? Or is it Julie’s fear?
I asked my companion what her favourite thing was and she enthusiastically answered “The dog was so funny!” Growl, played by Michelle Polack, was definitely a lovely touch of comedic relief while also being perfectly believable as a dog. Growl has the ability to communication with the Marie Marie, the grandmother, after her death, and the two have a touching, comedic relationship centred on their mutual love for Julie.
My only complaint is how the character of the psychiatrist does not behave toward Julie like a mental health professional as much as a frustrated family member. It would be easier to believe the anger and exasperation of her words after a buildup, but she has very emotional reactions to Julie right at the top of the show.
I strongly recommend bringing your kids to Pacamambo, especially if you’re ready to have some complex conversations with them afterward. And it’s always good to be ready to have such conversations, as there are a great many complex topics in the world that people of all ages need to figure out.
- Pacamambo plays until February 2, 2014 at The Citadel (304 Parliament St)
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8 pm with 2:30 pm matinees on Sunday January 26, Saturday February 1, and Sunday February 2
- Tickets are various prices from $16 to $72 for aSaturday evening Family Pass
- To purchase tickets visit www.artsboxoffice.ca or call 416-504-7529 or visit 16 Ryerson Ave in person
Picture of Amy Keating, Michelle Polak, Kyra Harper by Jeremy Mimnagh