Monday, February 05, 2018

Calpurnia (Toronto)

I wish I could tell you all to go see Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre's Calpurnia... but the rest of its run sold out after the first week. So instead, I'm going to tell you how this 90-minute family comedy, set around another dinner party, challenged my beliefs about allyship, racism, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Julie (Meghan Swaby) has hit a wall in writing her screenplay, the untold story of the Finch family's maid Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird. As she goes to great lengths to unlock this character's voice, she unsettles and unravels the racial politics within her own house--most importantly, the relationship between her upper class Jamaican-Canadian family and their Filipino housekeeper, Precy (Carolyn Fe).

I have missed going to Buddies in Bad Times! Toronto's LGBTQIA+ theatre felt so much more open than other theatre houses in Toronto. Walking in, I didn't recognize the same faces in the audience. Which meant it wasn't just members of the theatre community attending, but members of so many other communities, too. I also wasn't the only one with crazy-colored hair. Best of all: this rainbow of an audience made up the background for every scene in Calpurnia. Due to the profile staging, I got to watch the other half of the audience react to each uncomfortable moment.

This is what made this dinner-party-gone-wrong feel so much different than Disgraced. It happened right in the middle of the audience, right in the middle of everything. I felt like I was indeed watching a tennis match as I watched the characters cross the stage, opposing each other in every combination possible. Brother Mark (Matthew Brown) telling sister Julie that she is not black enough, then sister calling back that he is not political enough. Brother's girlfriend Christine (Natasha Greenblatt) labeling hot shot lawyer (Andrew Moodie) racist for exoticizing Mark when considering him for a job in his law firm. And Precy experiencing everything, yet acknowledged mainly for her service instead of the great emotional labour and erasure her position requires.

I caught my breath watching these accusations pinging back and forth across the stage--and yet it never felt like any of these moments was over-dramatic or unearned. The way Precy teased Julie at the beginning of the show and the care Julie took to apologize to her brother Mark before his big dinner revealed every single character as a feeling, full human. In moments, I could understand the anger, frustration, love, or pain each was feeling.

I was lucky enough to attend on the night of a talkback, which probably biased me even more in favor of this production. Playwright and Director Audrey Dwyer revealed the care the production took to be intersectional both in process and in performance. After two days of workshop on race and privilege with a facilitator from the University of Toronto, the cast members all said they had the vocabulary to speak more frankly about their own politics. This work more than paid off. It allowed Dwyer to create a sheltered space where one young woman's journey to "grow into her politics" could challenge packed audiences every night.

Although I cannot tell you to go see Calpurnia, I can say that this is the second production by Nightwood this year that has greatly surpassed my expectations. I will suggest booking tickets now for their next production, a remount of Mouthpiece.

*General admission, first row. Purchased my own ticket at full price.

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