Theatrical War Zones

  • Sky Gilbert (Author)
    I Have AIDS!. Playwrights Canada Press
  • David Yee
    lady in the red dress. Playwrights Canada Press
  • Anusree Roy
    Pyassa & Letters to My Grandma. Playwrights Canada Press
  • Judith Thompson
    Such Creatures. Playwrights Canada Press
Reviewed by Moira Day

Such Creatures amply demonstrates Thompson’s lyrical, imagistic gift for exploring the complex nuances of human love, hope, and redemption in the midst of the most brutal, dehumanizing circumstances. In this short chamber work showing two intertwining monologues over three scenes, two female characters confront three very different “war zones.” Sorele, fifty-five, is facing her third consecutive battle with cancer; Blanda, fifteen, has challenged another girl and her gang to a fight to ward off the fatal consequences of being labeled a “snitch” in a rough lower-class Toronto of drugs, violence, and family dysfunction, where a single wrong look or word may be your last. The unlikely bond between them becomes Sorele’s remembrance of her own fifteen-year-old self in Auschwitz. A fight for physical survival in all three worlds eventually becomes a search for the kind of unlikely “miracles”—transcendent encounters with the Virgin, with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest, and the souls and ghosts of family, friends, and past selves—that finally allow one’s soul and life to prevail, and connect unexpectedly with those of fellow pilgrims on converging paths. In those magical moments of meeting and recognition, suggests Thompson, we do indeed “defy augury.”
Calcutta-born Anusree Roy’s small, intimate chamber dramas, Pyaasa and Letters to My Grandma, also deal with women struggling to move beyond simple physical survival to take control of their own lives and souls in the psychic, physical, or social war zones surrounding them. However, Roy’s one-woman shows portray female lives further complicated by the dynamics of race, language (the characters shift easily between English and Bengali), culture, and religion whether the action takes place in India or Toronto. In both plays, the characters are strong, intelligent women who rely on humour, resourcefulness, and strong inter-generational family bonding to survive in “brave new worlds” that at once do not change nearly fast enough, and yet change all too quickly around them. Tragedy occurs in both plays when the only options open to mothers to save their daughters or give them a better life lead to disaster either for the child herself or someone else’s mother and child. Pyaasa, which focuses on the situation of Untouchables in present-day India, is particularly disturbing when the only “happy ending” available to its eleven-year-old protagonist is marriage to a much older man prepared to accept a bride already “devalued” by her employer’s rape provided she bears sons. Letters to my Grandma is a more complex examination of the struggle between generations to understand and hold on to each other, as time, place, and values shift. Grandma’s resourcefulness during the war saves her daughter’s life, but when the family’s search for a better life takes them to Canada without her, the old woman finds herself increasingly isolated, not just physically but psychically from her increasingly “Canadianized” granddaughter. Grandma’s final reconciliation with Mallabee’s marriage to a young Moslem man involves less her making her peace with a new world she does not understand than confronting and acknowledging an old cruelty towards someone else’s daughter that now threatens her ability to love and stay connected to her own kin. Again, as in Thompson’s play, the play ends on a bittersweet note of meeting and recognition between women as pilgrims on an unexpectedly converging path.

Survival, physical or otherwise, takes on quite a different meaning in Gilbert’s savagely funny black comedy, I Have AIDS! Things have changed, Gilbert suggests, since the days when AIDS was always fatal and its victims almost always “gay,” making the definitive AIDS play a powerful tragedy or melodrama centred around the gay protagonist’s inevitable death. Cleverly parodying the final tragic death scene in many earlier AIDS dramas, Gilbert, through his protagonist, Prodon, suggests that death is actually rather dull, commonplace and predictable, since everyone dies at some point; it is life and an individual’s psychic, personal, social, and political response to a heightened sense of one’s own mortality in the face of a now-chronic but manageable disease that are dramatic, unique, and full of human complexities, not only for the sufferer, but the friends, kin, and partners accompanying him on the journey. Prodon and his partner, Vidor, lead us on a wild Brechtian journey—sometimes horrifying, sometimes moving, sometimes hilarious—through the five common stages of reaction to the news that “I have AIDS”: denial, partying, loss of control, religious conversion, acceptance, and death. The ending of the play on a question mark, rather than the “death scene,” however, suggests that AIDS, rather like the AIDS play itself, has become an open-ended question mark of human possibilities.

Dedicated to the 81,000 Chinese who paid the Head Tax, and “died building the foundation of this country only to be disavowed and forgotten,” Lady in the Red Dress is an epic play that suggests that what we disavow and forget about the past says much about what we choose to forget and disavow about our deepest selves and those closest to us. Yee’s unlikely and deeply flawed Everyman, Max Lochlan, a government lawyer, initially sees the redress settlement as a clean-cut legal, financial problem from the past that can be fixed by a clean-cut, legal, and financial “deal” in the present. He learns differently upon a bourbon-fuelled collapse in his office, when the enigmatic Sylvia arrives to send him on a dark, violent, noir voyage to 1923 to discover the hidden psychic, physical, historical, and intercultural inter-twinings of her family roots and his. When Max returns, it is with a profound awareness of the futility of solving the “problem” of the past without reference to his own full human complexity and that of others. One might similarly say about the play itself that its final destination is less important than the satirical, poetic, and imagistic richness of the journey behind a much-humbled Max’s picking up the phone to begin again.

 



This review “Theatrical War Zones” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 183-185.

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