Present tense Topical, timely comedy addresses uncomfortable questions of race, privilege and class

After originally announcing it in 2020, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre was to have unveiled the comedy Calpurnia on its mainstage exactly this time last year, before the pandemic laid waste to the theatre’s best-laid plans.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/03/2022 (192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After originally announcing it in 2020, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre was to have unveiled the comedy Calpurnia on its mainstage exactly this time last year, before the pandemic laid waste to the theatre’s best-laid plans.

THEATRE PREVIEW

Calpurnia
By Audrey Dwyer
● Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre mainstage
● Opens Thursday, runs to April 16
● Tickets from $22.25 to $82.75 at royalmtc.ca

The play surely would have been appreciated in 2021, given its examination of topical racial issues, albeit set in the cushy environs of Toronto’s Forest Hill. It is here aspiring Black screenwriter Julie sets her mind on a daring, confrontational fiction, rewriting To Kill a Mockingbird as seen through the eyes of Calpurnia, the Black maid who serves southern lawyer Atticus Finch and his two children.

Winnipeg-born playwright Audrey Dwyer, who is also RMTC’s associate artistic director, says the delay was used for a rewrite, despite the fact the play was an unqualified hit when it premièred at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 2018.

JESSICA LEE / FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg-born playwright Audrey Dwyer took advantage of pandemic delays to revamp Calpurnia.

The intervening years, Dwyer says, demanded a rethink.

“The timing may actually be better now,” Dwyer says in a phone interview. “When the play was produced in 2018, workplaces weren’t taking courses in anti-oppression. There weren’t diversity officers in workspaces, though there were definitely needs for it.

“But due to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and the great pause that we were in, a lot of organizations and a lot of people started really examining themselves, which led to more discussions in homes and workplaces,” Dwyer says.

“So this play, while it is about To Kill a Mockingbird and mammy culture, I feel it’s a place for us to see all of those conversations and ideas smash into each other in a comedic way.

“There has been a real commitment, nationally or globally, to learning about anti-Black racism. So in that way, this is a great time for it.”

Dylan Hewlett photos From left: Kwaku Adu-Poku as Mark Gordon, Rochelle Kives as Precy Cabigting, Arne MacPherson as James Thompson, Ellie Ellwand as Christine Charte and Ray Strachan as Lawrence Gordon.

While the original production was well-reviewed in the Toronto press, “this definitely is not the same play,” Dwyer says, explaining that the work was chosen by Jillian Keiley of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to be given the benefit of an added dramaturgical process by Sarah Garton Stanley, the RMTC show’s director, “to give me time to work on the ideas and to go deeper.”

The world has changed since 2018, Dwyer says, so the opportunity to workshop it with different actors and modernize it was welcome. “Even now we’re making updates and changes to make it more attuned to today,” she says.

The play’s main provocation is to challenge many of the assumptions around Harper Lee’s much loved 1960 novel, which, among other things provided a template for the “white saviour” trope of stories of racial conflict that still survives today.

Notwithstanding the high tension that accompanies the topic, the play should yield laugh-out-loud moments, especially in Julie’s interactions with family Filipina maid Precy, which funhouse-mirror the dynamic between Mockingbird’s heroine Scout Finch and Calpurnia.

“I love comedy. I think comedy lets us release some of that tension and it’s a really great way to observe social change and to also see oneself,” says Dwyer. “I think things are funny because they’re true.”

Dylan Hewlett photo Ray Strachan (left), and Emerjade Simms

“This play is really good at holding up a mirror to society… and our biases that we come in with and the things that we need to work on,” says Toronto-based actress Emerjade Simms, who plays Julie. “I think it’s really good at forcing people to have really uncomfortable conversations.

“This play can make people unlearn things that they may have grown up with.”

Winnipeg-born actress Rochelle Kives, who plays Precy, concurs.

“It is a brilliant play written by Audrey Dwyer, who is paving the way and creating stories that need to be told on Canadian stages,” Kives says.

randall.king.arts@gmail.com

Dylan Hewlett photo Kwaku Adu-Poku, left, and Emerjade Simms play squabbling siblings Mark and Jule.

Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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