'Controlled Damage' by Andrea Scott
Grand Theatre, London, Ontario
Andrea Scott’s ‘Controlled Damage’ is a remarkable production of burgeoning emotional passion intensified by Ray Hogg’s compassionate direction of the material. This winning cast sets the bar high. Hopefully, the production run can be extended so that more audience members can witness this important play that walloped me right to my core.
Playwright Andrea Scott began her Programme Note with a Ha! when she told her high school English teacher she wanted to be a writer who then laughed at her.
I hope to God that the teacher comes to see this extraordinary production, Andrea, where you can finally say Ha! to her in person. And whether you want to do that either privately or in front of others is entirely up to you. Personally, I vote for the latter.
Each time I look at the picture of the lady on our Canadian ten-dollar bill, I will remember this production about Viola Desmond who stood her ground to pursue justice because she had done nothing wrong. She deserved to sit anywhere she damn well wanted in that movie theatre in 1946.
The end of the first act clearly led me to that decision. It was stunning both visually and aurally and I was bereft of words for a few moments when the lights came up. Pay close attention to the song lyrics because they still pack a punch for me even as I write this article the next day.
Viola Desmond is recognized as a Canadian civil and women’s rights activist and businesswoman of mixed-race Nova Scotian descent. Her mother was white and her father was coloured. In 1946, she challenged racial segregation at a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia by refusing to leave a whites-only area downstairs of the Roseland Theatre unaware that she was sold a lower-priced ticket for the balcony where Black patrons were expected to sit. Although she offered to pay the one-cent tax difference because she is near-sighted Viola was dragged from the theatre, jailed, and charged.
Thus ensued a story of anguish, shame, rage, anger, frustration, hope and victory penned by playwright Scott that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
An incredible team of behind-the-scenes artists has made many, many excellent choices. Ming Wong’s costumes are perfect re-creations of the era. The choice to have the ensemble wear masks is most appropriate as they signify hiding their horrific behaviour from view. Very effective. Brian Dudkiewicz’s elongated rectangular-shaped playing space prominently drew my attention for a few moments when the curtain was quietly raised about 10 minutes before show time and as the audience filed in. From my seat, the long electrical LED tubing along the outside strongly drew my attention.
Jareth Li’s lighting and Richard Feren’s sound designs remain elegant and fine throughout. VIDEOCOMPANY’s projection design nicely accentuated scenes and moments throughout Viola’s life and her relationships at that moment. What I especially liked seeing were the names of those Black individuals who made a significant contribution to Canada.
Alexandra Kane’s music direction and composition are one of the strengths of the production which brought tears to my eyes periodically. The sound was clear and consistent throughout. Thankfully I could hear the lyrics to each of the choral numbers as the words and lyrics heartfully underscore the intensity of the moment. The closing song of Act One – “I Did Nothing Wrong’ is spiritually haunting.
The production itself is terrific on all accounts. The slight quibble I do have is the ensemble is only known as Man and Woman excluding the Fiddler, Viola and Jack. Some of the ensemble characters are quite good in their specific moments. However, there were moments from my seat when I couldn’t decipher which actor was playing the specific role. For example, I think it was Wade Bogert-O’Brien who played Mr. Nixon but I couldn’t be certain since I was near the back of the house. I also couldn’t see who played the usher in the movie theatre – I think it was Monique Lund but again I couldn’t tell. It might be a good idea to place in the programme who played which character.
Ray Hogg’s direction remains gentle, compassionate, and humane. He creates a story of very real and believable people who at that time suffered atrocities that should never have occurred in the first place.
Hogg also creates some stirring edge-of-your-seat moments which piqued my interest immediately. About ten minutes before the show begins, the curtain is raised and we see Beck Lloyd as Viola quietly sitting centre stage. She says nothing but appears to be listening intently to the sounds around her. It is Lloyd’s subdued physical deportment that says so much – she appears intently focused and in control of her emotions. At one point, she gets up from the bench sans shoes and walks the perimeter of the room. Lloyd never leaves this space for the entire performance; however, the ending Hogg has envisioned for Viola rings true while taking my breath away momentarily.
The sinewy movement of the ensemble signifying the Halifax explosion of the two ships sent shivers down my spine as it is breathtaking so I must credit Hogg once again here.
Beck Lloyd delivers a tour de force performance of subdued strength and moving fervency as Viola Desmond. With the utmost conviction in search of the truth of the situation, Beck remains confidently resolute to show a complete character arc of a person who, as playwright Scott described: “was an ordinary, hard-working woman living in a challenging time to be ‘other’.” This is most evident at the top of the show where Beck, as Viola, is teaching an elementary school and uses ‘unheard of’ teaching methods for children at the time to get her students to enjoy learning. For example, as the students are learning about the Canadian provinces, a ball is bounced back and forth as the students stand up from the desks and are engaged physically in the activity.
Today, teachers call this meeting students where they are in their learning and this would be highly commended now. In the mid-late 1940s, this would have been considered subversive as horrifically seen by the arrival of the principal of the school Mr. Nixon who makes sexual advances on Viola while the students are out of the room. Because she does not succumb to his advances, Nixon does not fire Viola but instead does not renew her contract to teach at the school which doesn’t give her a chance to say goodbye to those students.
For those of us who loved teaching as part of our career, this non-renewal would have been devastating. But Viola finally gets to say what needed to be said about what happened at the end of the play.
Throughout so many of the struggles she faced, Viola pushes forward and gets back up. She starts her own beauty salon for coloured women and falls in love with Jack Desmond, a barber, whom she marries and later divorces as he experiences difficulties as to why she wants to continue with this court fight of what happened in New Glasgow. The interrogation scene where Jack shows no belief and trust in his wife as to why she couldn’t leave well enough alone is heartbreaking to watch.
As Jack, Stewart Adam McKensy is a dynamite vocalist whose Act 2 number with his friends is a knockout. He boldly and bravely behaves as a husband who wants to support his wife, but he does make demands of her as per the context of the era when wives made supper for their spouses and were to remain at home and raise the children and not work. Those moments where McKensy, as Jack, heartrendingly asks Viola if the court fight is worth the fight.
I’ve seen the ensemble members on other stages including at Stratford and Mirvish. Here they have gelled beautifully in their quest to tell this story with dignity, grace and truth.
Final Comments: ‘Controlled Damage’ is one of my picks to see. I certainly hope the production can tour throughout Ontario in future especially since we are approaching Black History Month.
A winner. See it.
Running Time: approximately two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.
‘Controlled Damage’ runs to January 29 at the Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond Street, London, Ontario. For tickets and other information, visit grandtheatre.com or call the Box Office (519) 672-8800.
CONTROLLED DAMAGE by Andrea Scott
Director and Movement Director by Ray Hogg
Assistant Directors: Kaylee Harwood and Lennette Randall
Music Director/Composer: Alexandra Kane
Set Designer: Brian Dudkiewicz
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Jareth Li
Sound Designer: Richard Feren
Projection Design: VIDEOCOMPANY
Fight and Intimacy Director: Siobhan Richardson
Stage Manager: Suzanne McArthur
The Company: Wade Bogert-O’Brien, Krystle Chance, Starr Domingue, Cameron Grant, Kaylee Harwood, David Keeley, Dominique Leblanc, Beck Lloyd, Monique Lund, Gracie Mack, Stewart Adam McKensy, Danté Prince