Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Down and out in River Heights

Comic playwright puts 'white do-gooders' in the crosshairs

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Jenna Hill as Sarah in Social Studies.

BRUCE MONK PHOTO Enlarge Image

Jenna Hill as Sarah in Social Studies.

Trish Cooper recalls it as one of the low points of her life. She was returning to Winnipeg from Toronto, feeling somewhat defeated at 34, but happy at the prospect of some home cooking.

When she arrived at her mother's Fort Garry home, she discovered her room had been taken over by a Sudanese refugee. Her peace-activist mother had taken in one of the so-called "lost boys," a laudable charitable act that Cooper initially viewed as another kick when she was down.

"I remember it was a time when I was feeling a little sorry for myself," says Cooper, a longtime comedic writer and performer. "I didn't have a job and was living with my mother. I felt like a loser."

What was worse was the way she regarded her new housemate, who was sleeping in her former bed and driving her mother's car. Then there was the guilt about her woe-is-me moaning, which seemed silly when compared to the hardships of a 22-year-old man who had trekked an extraordinary distance through unforgiving wilderness to seek refuge from his country's fractious civil war.

"I thought, 'How can I complain about anything?' because he had been through a genocide," says the former member of the Royal Liechtenstein comedy troupe, which disbanded in 2003. "We have First World problems, but we can't live our lives constantly glad we aren't Sudanese refugees -- although we should try to be aware of it."

Some of the odd cultural clashes she experienced at home became great stories to entertain her friends, but eventually she began writing them down into a series of sketches that evolved into a script while she was a member of the Playwrights Unit at Prairie Theatre Exchange. Her comedy Social Studies had a staged reading at the 2012 Carol Shields Festival of New Works and premieres at PTE Nov. 21.

The plot generally dovetails with Cooper's real experience, but in Social Studies, Jackie comes home to Val's River Heights home after separating from her husband, hoping for some TLC before she gets back on her feet. Instead, Jackie finds herself stewing on the living room couch while Deng enjoys the comfort of middle-class suburbia for the first time in his life.

"It's complicated trying to do the right thing and I think there is comedy in trying to be a good person," says the mother of two children, 3 and 7. "Think about the Eric Robinson controversy about putting on a burlesque show to raise funds for Osborne House. The intentions were right but..."

The "white do-gooders" will be the object of most of the laughs in Social Studies.

"The true story is that it never got to an awful place, it just got irritating," Cooper says. "I came to realize, 'What do I have to complain about?' I think we all need reality checks now and then."

Cooper, 42, is one of the so-called Group of Seven female playwrights who are debuting new plays in Winnipeg this season. Social Studies is also her first produced work after many years of DIY shows such as Year of the Panda (co-written by Vaness Macrae), The Comment Card and Homely Woman #2 at the fringe festival. She is enjoying having a theatre behind her for the first time, taking care of all the maddening details that go into play production.

Her mother was not aware of that new luxury and launched her own publicity campaign.

"My mother made her own handbills for the show and handed them out at Fort Garry United Church," says Cooper, smiling at the thought of such maternal support. "It was adorable and very sweet but I said, 'Mom, they have people who do that.' There are a lot of church people coming to the play. It worked."

Maybe her mother felt she had a considerable stake in Social Studies, since she inspired the story and shares some personality traits with the character of Val. Cooper says she stole a few of her mother's "bits." The playwright had warned her prior to the Carol Shields reading that she might recognize herself.

"When she says Grace, she makes it into a guilt trip," says Cooper, a North Ender. "She's like an old Communist who thinks everyone should share and nobody should have more than they need."

Cooper feels she is surrounded by funny people but recognizes there is a risk to inhabiting her works with real people in disguise. However, she and Macrae did it in Year of the Panda and no one was the wiser.

"There were people who thought we were talking about them, which we weren't and those people we were making fun of had no idea," she says.

Cooper keeps notes of comic nuggets from her life and jots them down where they don't always belong. Fellow Winnipeg playwright Ellen Peterson was visiting Cooper when she noticed the grocery list on the refrigerator read "eggs, milk, dementia," the latter being a cue to a sketch possibility.

"I find humour in everything," she says. "I have a bit of a potty mouth and I can go to a dark place sometime that is maybe a way of coping in my family. My stuff is more absurd and more reality-based. Louis CK talking about his children kills me."

Her mother's guest has gone on to university in Saskatchewan and is flourishing, she says. Cooper would love for him to see Social Studies.

"I think he would get a kick out of it. I think he would get a laugh of us making fun of a white, privileged River Heights family."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2013 C7

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