Although conFAB’s production of A Thousand Kindnesses at the Toronto Fringe Festival contains a heartfelt and timely message about the plight of refugees and the power of kindness in everyday life, the way this message was delivered — through uncontextualized first-person accounts collected from real refugees — left me feeling profoundly uneasy.
I’m sympathetic to the difficulty of performing a one-woman show. Happily, Rachel Jury delivered her lines with well-practiced fluency. In terms of movement, I would have liked to see her shift to a different part of the stage or incorporate more physicality into her characters. The jumps between refugee stories and Jury’s own autobiographical tales often felt abrupt; these narratives were more satisfying when they were individually allowed to gain some momentum.
I thought Jury was at her best when relating stories from her own life, particularly the short bit about the chatty man who lived in her apartment building. However, the bulk of A Thousand Kindnesses focused on stories from refugees.
Unfortunately, I found it extremely jarring to hear the stories of Black and Brown refugees — stories of border crossings, forced labour for the military, escaping war-torn countries at any cost — told as first-person experience by a White woman without any clear cultural, ethnic, or experience-based claim to them.
I don’t wish to personally insult or attack Jury in any way; no doubt she was motivated to perform this piece based on her honest compassion for people who are enduring extreme circumstances. However, I question anyone’s right to tell refugees’ stories in the style of direct lived experience — according to the program, these were true stories from real people — without having lived through it themselves, or at least providing the names of the people who did, and offering some kind of context for the way these stories arrived on the stage.
If Jury had framed the refugees’ stories in her own experience, describing her relationship to the people she interviewed and altering her storytelling method to honour their voices, instead of directly presenting their voices as her own — recounting their lived narratives in exactly the same style as actual anecdotes from her own life — these problems might have been circumvented. I wanted her to acknowledge onstage that she was telling stories that weren’t experienced by her, and to shift attention to the people who did.
Whatever Jury’s intention, I walked away from the show feeling strongly that the stories of refugees have been appropriated for, rather than incorporated into, the show. The use of ethnic accents and fractured English for refugee characters, which I assume were used to increase authenticity, did not diminish this impression.
Overall, I applaud this play’s message that kindness has the power to transform lives. If more people acted with kindness, we would live in a better world. Regardless, I remain unconvinced about the appropriateness of the relationship between message and messenger.
- A Thousand Kindnesses plays at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace. (30 Bridgman Ave)
- Tickets are $12 at the door and in advance. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Fringe Club at Honest Ed’s Alley, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible.
- Wednesday June 29th, 06:15 pm
- Saturday July 2nd, 12:15 pm
- Sunday July 3rd, 03:15 pm
- Wednesday July 6th, 05:30 pm
- Thursday July 7th, 11:15 pm
- Saturday July 9th, 01:45 pm
- Sunday July 10th, 07:45 pm
Photo of Rachel Jury by Karen Gordon Photography