Undocumented workers and a Fringe hit revisited: this week in Toronto theatre

Recent openings

There have been many fine new Canadian plays to premiere this season. But none has the clarity, emotional pull and power of Kanika Ambrose‘s our place (Rating: NNNNN), which just opened at Theatre Passe Muraille in a co-production between TPM and Cahoots Theatre. It feels like a new Canadian classic.

Niesha (Sophia Walker) and Andrea (Virgilia Griffith) both work at the fictional Jerk Pork Castle, one of many West Indian restaurants dotting Kingston Road in Scarborough. It’s 2016, and news of Canada’s support for thousands of Syrian refugees is blaring from the TV screen in Sim Suzer‘s remarkable replica of a modest restaurant interior.

The women’s differing views about the crisis suggest their own situations, which are never fully revealed but can gradually be pieced together. They are undocumented Canadians whose work Visas have likely expired or about to; they’re working under the table for an unseen employer named Yvonne who has given them work but is also paying them much less than they’d normally make. Their entire existence here is precarious.

The women hail from different (fictional) Caribbean islands, and – in one of the script’s major features – speak in their respective fictional dialects. (In a program note, Ambrose says she employed such a dialect to protect the identities and regional origins of people who are currently in similar work situations. A monitor projects the dialogue, but your ear will likely adapt to the particular rhythms and figures of speech.)

While both women are mothers, hoping to eventually bring their children to live with them, their personalities couldn’t be more different. Andrea spends her money trying to look good for her new boyfriend, Malcolm (Tremaine Nelson), although she is increasingly worried he might not be interested in anything long-term. Niesha is more conscientious, wiping down tables until the last minute of her shift, salting away her money for the future. She has no time for fun – that is, until a charming, persistent younger man named Eldrick (Pablo Ogunlesi) begins courting her.

Under director Sabryn Rock, the two women develop a gently bickering friendship that feels authentic and unforced. Rock has configured the Passe Muraille space so audiences sit on three sides, with playing areas that allow us to imagine people sitting in a car, walking to a bus stop and, in one of the briefest but most liberating scenes performed in the theatre’s balcony, coming out of a comedy show. A raised area consisting of a bedroom remains unused for much of the play, but when it is employed it provides a fascinating vantage point on the rest of the action.

What’s so satisfying about the play and production is that all four characters emerge as three-dimensional and complicated, their actions (I don’t want to reveal spoilers) the result of a broken, unfair system.

Walker’s complete demeanour changes when we see her talking long-distance to her children. And she opens up and relaxes when she finally lets down her guard with Eldrick. The Ani we meet in the first scene – gyrating seductively (Griffith also acts as choreographer) to the sound design by NON – barely resembles the woman we see in her heartbreaking final scenes. The men, although onstage less, are each drawn with nuance; your feelings may change about them during the course of the play.

While a few moments near the end could be trimmed, this is still urgent, necessary theatre – deeply specific but universal. It’s one of the best shows of the year, and has the potential to receive productions throughout the continent.

Our Place plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson) until December 3. See info here.

ballad of johnny longstaff
Photo by Pamela Raith

Beautiful Ballad

If, like me, you’d never heard of the name Johnny Longstaff, not to worry. After watching the North American premiere of the hit UK show The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff (Rating: NNNN), you won’t soon forget him. And you’ll immediately Google the artists presenting his story, the Young’uns.

Based on their 2019 album of the same name, the contemporary folk group have fashioned a modest, unpretentious but deeply affecting show that acts as a tribute to Longstaff, a working-class hero from Stockton-on-Tees who grew up in poverty, took part in the historic 1934 hunger march to London and eventually became involved in the labour movement.

This led to him to joining, while still a teenager, the 15th International Brigade to fight fascism in Spain. Later, he fought in the Second World War. He even met Winston Churchill.

The trio of singer/storyteller/musicians (Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Sam Carter, the latter replacing Michael Hughes for this tour) relate Longstaff’s story through excerpts of actual recordings of Longstaff’s memories – captured in the 1980s and housed at the Imperial War Museum – with songs that illustrate key events.

It’s these songs, many performed a cappella in heartbreaking harmonies, that are the production’s main draw (as one of the Young’uns suggests at the beginning, they’re not really actors). It’s through the music that they evoke the excitement of worker solidarity (one song has alternate lyrics to the Internationale), the horrors of combat, the poignant ache of loss. The show’s most moving song concerns a snapshot taken of Longstaff and four of his mates before they set off for Spain. As the trio sing, Scott Turnbull‘s animation of the photo is sketched out on a backdrop, completing the picture.

Canadian audiences might be reminded of Billy Bishop Goes To War, but again, these aren’t trained actors. The production, directed by Lorne Campbell, is a wonderful blend of storytelling, history, music and bar-room tale. In addition to the big dramatic moments, there are plenty of low-key jokes and asides. Sometimes the accents are a little hard to make out. But there’s no misunderstanding the music. This show is a gem.

The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff plays at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West) until November 27. See info here.

gay for pay with blake and clay

Gay For Pay’s post-Fringe outing

At hit at last summer’s Fringe Festival, where it was a Patrons’ Pick and one of the buzziest shows around, Curtis Campbell and Daniel Krolik‘s Gay For Pay With Blake & Clay (Rating: NNNN) has returned in style – with a few new references and a clearer dramatic through-line – to Crow’s Theatre.

The two-hander’s satiric set-up is ingenious. Underemployed gay actors Blake (Krolik) and Clay (Jonathan Wilson) are earning cash by holding a seminar for straight actors who, following in the footsteps of thesps like Tom Hanks and Sean Penn, are eager to play gay parts so they can win awards.

And so, in seven simple steps, the pair teach us (the participants) things like what kind of gay character we can expect to play (this second viewing was worth it simply to watch Wilson recreate his “horny elderly neighbour and his cat”), classic gay moments and even some first-hand experience about simulating queer sex onscreen.

No one or thing is spared from their scathing wit, including CBC Gem, the Toronto Police Department, self-righteous awards winners – oh, and Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. The latter couple are subjected to an extended joke that illustrates how confusing and contradictory queer identity politics have become.

This time around, I found a subplot about Blake’s psychological meltdown much better integrated into the show. Beneath the jokes (Brendon Fraser’s Oscar-touted performance in The Whale gets a whopper) and Drew Droege-like mispronunciations of words there are serious statements about casting, self-esteem and the line between reality and that depicted in art.

Campbell once again directs, and makes good use of the wide, shallow Studio Theatre by letting the actors play to either side of the venue, their occasional whispered conversations behind a screen getting lots of laughs.

In my Fringe review, I wrote that the play, if it were mounted during the regular theatre season, would likely be up for awards. Come see it and find out why.

Gay For Pay plays at Crow’s Theatre’s Studio Theatre (345 Carlaw) until November 27. See info here.


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