Coming back home to figure things out is a time-honoured pastime for many young adults in today's heartless marketplace of shattered dreams and underemployment.
by Deborah Rankin
Coming back home to figure things out is a time-honoured pastime for many young adults in today's heartless marketplace of shattered dreams and underemployment. However, working things out is not so simple: there are often old scores to settle and new wrinkles to be ironed out. This is the premise of Tricia Cooper's play Social Studies at the Centaur Theatre, its first stop on the national circuit after an initial run at Prairie Theatre Exchange last fall. Loosely based on true events in the author's own life, this dark comedy directed by Paul Van Dyck revolves around the daily lives of a blended intercultural family struggling to connect.
When Jackie (Eleanor Noble) arrives at the family homestead with suitcases in tow after splitting from her cheating husband, she soon discovers some inconvenient truths. Much to her chagrin, she finds out that her old room has been taken over by a young Sudanese man whom her idealistic single mother Val (Jane Wheeler) has adopted. The twenty-something divorcée needs consolation along with a place to stay until she can find work and make a fresh start, but she won't be getting a whole lot of TLC. In fact, some tough love is in order.
Jackie's newly acquired "brother" Deng (Jaa Smith-Johnson) is one of the "lost boys" orphaned by the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005) which began when Islamic forces, backed by the government in the north, attacked villages in the south where most Christians and animists lived, causing thousands of boys between 7-17 years of age to flee their homes, with many of their sisters being sold into slavery.
Incredibly enough, more than 3000 of the original 20,000 orphans who trekked barefoot across Africa from Sudan to Ethiopia and back again to Sudan managed to survive, finally finding sanctuary of sorts in refugee camps in Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda - that is those who weren't kidnapped from the camps only to become child soldiers. Unfortunately, most of these children and youths didn't survive the harrowing journey over thousands of kilometers of rough terrain and perished along the way from starvation and disease or fell prey to wild animals.
Some just lay down by the roadside and died when they became too weak to continue walking.
For Deng there will never be a home to come back to much as he really tries to embrace his white, middle-class surrogate "family". So when Val informs her pampered eldest daughter that "genocide trumps divorce" in the sympathy sweepstakes, Jackie realizes that she will just have to suck it up and take the couch. Meanwhile, her younger sister Sarah (Emily Tognet), a sweet affable teenager, is doing a project for her social studies class on the "lost boys" of Sudan, inspired by Deng on whom she develops a schoolgirl crush. The social studies project is a recurring theme throughout the play, although the full story of Deng's ordeal doesn't unfold until the very end.
Val is a tad flakey, insisting upon group hugs to smooth over the rivalry that is brewing between Jackie and Deng, who has his own agenda of getting the car keys rather than taking the bus to go to school or visit friends, drinking wine and generally enjoying the good life in his new home in Winnipeg, although there are adjustments to be made.
Deng attends church regularly and credits God with helping him survive against all odds despite indifference to his religious beliefs by his foster family. He is scandalized when he sees Jackie watching a show on TV involving a romantic scene between two men. He positively recoils on his chair from the offending image, shouting to Jackie who is within earshot that in his country they don't accept this behaviour.
Val, ever the determined optimist, later kindly but firmly informs him that in her house "we celebrate all forms of love."
Val's first husband died and her second marriage ended in divorce. She sees Deng as the son she never had and wants to do special things for him, a fact that irks Jackie who sees through Deng's goody two-shoes exterior to his consumerism and status-seeking, but does not see his good heart.
Deng sees himself as the man of the house, responsible for the conduct of the females in it, leading to a misunderstanding with his little "sister" Sarah. Jackie sees Deng as a misognynist and potentially dangerous because of his experiences, a point of view she continually drives home to her younger sibling who takes Deng's side.
Director Paul Van Dyck has done an admirable job of bringing this compelling story to life on stage. In spite of the family drama being set against the backdrop of a much more vast human drama taking place on the other side of the globe, he never allows the production to veer into overtly politicized territory, something that happens readily enough in other contexts.
All of the actors make their characters believable in this four-hander. Jane Wheeler's performance as Val, the slightly neurotic mother who tries too hard, is both funny and relatable. Eleanor Noble's depiction of Jackie reminds us of ourselves when we become stridently pre-occupied with our own petty problems. Emily Tognet as Sarah has slipped comfortably into the role of everyone's endearing kid sister.
Kudos must go to Jaa Smith-Johnson for his finely tuned portrayal of Deng as the friendly stranger whom we are wary of but wish to welcome into our homes and give the place of a favourite cousin once we get to know him better.
None of this would have been possible of course without Tricia Cooper's wonderful script that carefully balances different voices and competing narratives. Her own background in sketch comedy likely helped her to conceive of a lighter approach to this unique true to life fictionalized story which treated differently could have weighed heavily on the side of tragedy.
The horror of it all is kept at bay but haunts the family's comical mini-drama through the use of images of children in war-torn Africa projected across the two-story set designed by Evita Karasek which looks a lot like a middle-class house with its realistic living room that is suitably lit (Jody Burkholder). Seamless transitioning from pop to African music remind the audience that this home is a place where people from different cultures can meet and stay connected even if their origins are worlds apart.
Written by Tricia Cooper
Directed by Paul Van Dyck
Continues at the Centaur Theatre until Nov. 30
Last Night at the Gayete
The Centaur Theatre's 2015-2016 season is drawing to a close with its final production of Last Night at the Gayety, a musical comedy by Bowser & Blue which runs until May 22nd.