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'Vierge' by Rachel Mutombo

Now onstage at Toronto's Factory Theatre

Now onstage at Toronto's Factory Theatre

David Rabjohn

A new play, ‘Vierge’, written by first time playwright Rachel Mutombo opened this week at the Factory Theatre in Toronto. An interplay between the themes of the stresses of recent immigration and the confusing dynamics of teenage life, this lively production delves deeply into these sensitive issues. The strength of this play comes from four impressive performances that keeps the audience fully engaged.

Although we would call this an ensemble, the driving force of the story and the acting comes from the character of Divine played by Shauna Thompson. Ms. Thompson’s performance was captivating in that every range of emotion was on full display. Divine, a strong young Christian, is given a large responsibility in running a small ‘group’ of teenage girls in bible study. Only three girls show up with various agendas and attitudes. Yvonne Addai plays a cheeky Grace Katende while JD Leslie plays her sister Sarah and their relationship seems sour from the beginning.

Although Grace and Sarah have recently immigrated from the Congo, Divine and her new friend Bien-Aime (Kudakwashe Rutendo) also have roots in the Congo. Chaos is not far away as Divine is treading water trying to keep the program together while the others are irreverent and gossipy. Horrific stories and undercut relationships are mined through the lens of teenage enthusiasm and angst. A riotous teenage drinking party, set in the church itself, brings to conclusion a very sad story.

Ms. Addai’s performance drips with saucy irreverence – sex is just a joke. Many “watch the hand” moments were her signature as well as some striking dance moves that would shock a priest. Her sister Sarah (JD Leslie) is more brooding and sarcastic – her crushing eyes belie much sadness and heartache.

Ms. Rutendo’s portrayal of Bien-Aime is perhaps the most complicated. The daughter of a retired minister, she acts throughout the play as an intermediator taking on leadership roles and befriending Divine. But a subtle devilish undercurrent is palpable and Ms. Rutendo pins the audience to their seats with a late monologue describing a shocking past – sincerity is still up for grabs. There are many sides to Bien-Aime – even her beautiful name has the sound of enemy in it.

As in any dramedy, Ms. Mutombo’s dark play sparkles at times with hilarious wordplay. Recently from the Congo, Grace and Sarah struggle with some English phrases. Highlights include sexual partners who “spin” instead of “swing” and the confusion of a “rifle” wedding instead of a “shotgun” wedding.

The writing near the end seemed somewhat thin. It appears incongruous that Divine, a self-described virgin, a non-drinker and a committed Christian would within a period of 48 hours become a blacked-out drunk and wild party girl. Teenagers do arc wildly, but that seemed too much. The issue of hypocrisy was effectively raised with more subtlety earlier in the play.

A creative piece of directing came from Natasha Mumba with the riotous party scene near the end. We feel the heat of the party but we see only one-half of the partygoers. Some imaginative blocking and wild choreography set the raucous tone.

Ms. Mutombo’s notes suggest that this is an “exploration of identity.” She has achieved that goal and the phrase certainly is the very definition of being a teenager – especially in a difficult world.

‘Vierge’ by Rachel Mutombo
Performers: Yvonne Addai, JD Leslie, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Shauna Thompson
Director: Natasha Mumba
Set Design: Rachel Forbes
Lighting Design: Jareth Li

Production runs through April 30, 2023.

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