Review: Calpurnia (Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre Company)

Calpurnia is “provocative”, “uncomfortable”, and “deeply nuanced”, on stage in Toronto

Calpurnia–written and directed by Audrey Dwyer and produced by Nightwood Theatre Company and Sulong Theatre Company–is a highly relevant and provocative look at racism, classism, and sexism in a story that is at times humorous and at most times painful and uncomfortable in the best possible way. The performances are dynamic, as is the writing, making this a show that is well worth the watch.

Calpurnia draws inspiration from To Kill a Mockingbird, in particular focusing on the character of the Finch family’s Black housekeeper. Walking into this production, I was under the impression that this play was going to be a retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird from the perspective of Calpurnia, but that’s not exactly the case.

The story revolves around an affluent Jamaican-Canadian family in their Forest Hill home, along with their Filipina housekeeper Precy (Carolyn Fe). Julie (Meghan Swaby) is working on a new screenplay, an adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird from Calpurnia’s perspective, but she’s struggling. Having grown up in a rich family, with a housekeeper who has had a hand in raising her for her entire life, Julie’s been told that she lacks the voice to properly tell the tale of a Black slave. Her brother Mark (Matthew Brown) has to agree, and is all to happy to point out the class separation that they live within.

Mark is a lawyer following in the footsteps of his father Lawrence (Andrew Moodie), who has arranged a dinner in order for Mark to meet James (Don Allison), the head of a new law firm whom Lawrence wants Mark to join. What begins as an already nerve-wracking dinner party gets turned on its head when Julie decides this would be the best time to prove that she, along with her research, has what it takes to write from the eyes of a servant.

Calpurnia builds up to the moment that Julie decides to crash the dinner party, sending the whole evening into a downward spiral of racism, shame and smack-in-the-face embarrassment. It’s an embarrassment that is so cringe-worthy that it’s near difficult to watch. You want it to end, you want to grab Julie by the shoulders and tell her to stop! And though everyone does attempt to silence her, Julie is on a tirade. Credit must go to Swaby for her dedication to this role and the uncomfortable subject matter that she’s not only tackling but painfully broadcasting, loudly.

Admittedly, there were times that I felt Swaby’s approach to the character, especially leading up to the dinner party, felt over projected and like she was reading from a script. I feel that her character would come across as more relatable if she were to tone down her speech a bit and slow her rapid fire pace.

But most of my heartache goes to Precy, who silently and diligently has to take this insult and mockery of her profession and the effort she put into prepping this dinner party (that has now gone to waste), from a young woman she had a hand in raising, on what was supposed to be her day off. Fe’s performance here stands out and you can’t help but feel for her as she has to endure all this while still trying to do her job.

Living in the suburbs, I see this a lot — the Filipino community is comprised of lovely, kind and very hard-working and dedicated people, many of whom take on positions in the service industry or in domestic service and who do so with great dedication and respect. I love that Calpurnia has been able to shine a respectful light on both the Filipino community and on those who work in this industry.

On top of all this, there is an additional layer of equally-as-uncomfortable exotification of Black culture as James chooses to focus most of his conversation with Mark and Lawrence on their Jamaican background while being quick to make snap judgments.

Rounding out the play, Calpurnia‘s set feels lush and lived in. I love that it’s fully functional: from a kitchen with a working sink and fridge, to a coat closet off stage right. Anna Treusch and Megan Cinel have done great work in bringing this home to life. With the stage set almost in the round, with the audience occupying space on either side of the set, the set with the actors comes to life as they are free to move around without constantly being aware of having their back to the audience. Watching this play feels like watching television.

Calpurnia is one of those stories that is deeply nuanced and provides much fodder for discussion and debate. It is eye-opening and reveals much about prejudices and ingrained privilege that, in some way, exists in everyone. It’s certainly worth the watch.

Details:

  • Calpurnia plays is on stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street) until February 4 2018.
  • Performances run Tuesdays to Sundays at 8:00 pm with weekend matinees at 2:30 pm. (Special PWYC performance on Thursday, February 1 at 1:00 pm)
  • Tickets are $35 and $25 for students, arts workers, and seniors (only available by phone or in person).
  • Tickets can be purchased online, in person, or by phone by calling 416 975 8555.

Photo of Andrew Moodie, Natasha Greenblatt and Matthew Brown by Dahlia Katz

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