'our place' by Kanika Ambrose

A Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille Co-production World Premiere

Gesilayefa Azorbo. Background: Pablo Ogunlesi. Foreground: Sophia Walker

Joe Szekeres

Virgilia Griffith and Sophia Walker are stunning as Andrea and Niesha. Under Sabryn Rock’s compassionately infused direction, these ladies capture real-life women caught in the crossfires of a broken Canadian immigration system.

Two premieres in one night – Kanika Ambrose’s ‘our place’ and the debut of director Sabryn Rock. An exciting night indeed to encapsulate two wins for Theatre Passe Muraille and Cahoots.

Ambrose’s ‘our place’ is the story of two women living and working in Scarborough against the backdrop of the Jerk Pork Castle restaurant in a strip mall plaza on Kingston Road. Andrea (Virgilia Griffith) and Niesha (Sophia Walker) are undocumented residents who work for cash under the table. They were hired by Yvonne, the unseen owner of the restaurant who is aware of the ladies’ situation and wants to assist as much as she can. We also meet Malcolm (Tremaine Nelson), Andrea’s boyfriend and Eldrick (Pablo Ogunlesi), an acquaintance of Malcolm’s whose sparking interest in Niesha becomes questionable as the plot ensues.

Sim Suzer’s set design was a three-quarter theatre in the round sitting on the Main Stage and it worked nicely for me. Centre Stage was the typical diner one might find in strip mall plazas. The counter is centre stage. There are two tables with chairs and the restaurant entrance. A bedroom (which later serves as a hotel room) is set on risers. As the actors exit and enter, they walk along the perimeter of the restaurant setting. At one point, two of the actors appear on the balcony for another scene, and it does make sense for that scene to take place there.

An important note for future audiences. The characters in the play are from the fictional islands Fanon and Caviva and have fictional dialects which blended four real dialects. With my working knowledge of French, I could also detect a few words from the language. There is a monitor audiences can follow if they wish to do so. I did and it was helpful to follow the story.

It did take a few minutes to get used to following the screen while watching the onstage action, but I got the hang of it. Do let the front of house/ushers know if you would like to be able to read the monitor so you can sit accordingly.

The English teacher within me was curious why the play’s title was lowercase, but it makes sense why it would be with the knowledge of the fictional dialect. Ambrose’s script sharply captures the unique flavour of how these four characters speak to each other. Technically, we are listening to real conversations so really there’s no need to have the play’s title formally captured.

Virgilia Griffith and Sophia Walker’s performances remain stunning to watch. Director Sabryn Rock holds compassion for these ladies and their situation. In her Director’s Programme Note, she writes the story has compelled her to investigate her own connection to immigration and to a family member who has been through the same type of journeys as Andrea and Niesha. The risks for these undocumented people are many as they can be exploited by others who may take financial or emotional advantage which may cause severe and lasting consequences.

Knowing these risks and being away from the security of their family and their loved ones, Andrea and Niesha do their best to continue moving forward with the hope their families and loved ones might be able to join them in Canada soon. Virgilia Griffith’s oozes a sinewy and sexy manner as the sultry Andrea. Sophia Walker’s Niesha is practical and stolid and remains clearly focused on the task at hand because she wants to bring her children to Canada to live with her.

It is the fine performance synchronicity between Griffith and Walker that makes ‘our place’ soar. These two ladies are so in tune with each other in listening and hearing what the other is saying, and their clearly organic justified responses to each other are credible. When they tease each other jokingly, it’s wonderful to watch. When Niesha must inform Andrea about her behaviour and how it can be misinterpreted in the wrong hands, Griffith intently is aware of what is being said. Marvellous to watch these two ladies together.

Supporting players Tremaine Nelson and Pablo Ogunlesi offer solid performances for the most part, but Nelson’s development of Malcolm is one-dimensional and predictable. As Andrea’s good-looking ‘boy toy’ we see the two of them have their “really good time together” as playwright Ambrose writes in her Programme Note. Nevertheless, I could just sense this relationship was not going to last especially as Andrea wants to dissect the elements of her relationship with Malcolm. He is the first to utter those three words in any relationship that will make or break it (I love you), but it’s obvious from Rock’s staging those three words were uttered in the heat of the moment and Malcolm did not truly mean what he had said.

Pablo Ogunlesi’s Eldrick suavely uses his charm and handsome looks to lure Neisha to go out with him first and ultimately hustles her to trust him. Walker beautifully and sharply rebuffs these initial advances with perfectly cutting comic timing in her responses and the glares at Ogunlesi. A terrific cat and canary/cat and mouse relationship ensue at first which progresses more deeply when Eldrick ‘promises’ Niesha he can and will try to bring her children to Canada. It’s going to cost her big time financially but more so emotionally as evident when she agrees to follow through with what Eldrick asks of her. It is this misuse and abuse of trust that Neisha feels ruthlessly betrayed by this hustler. Walker runs the veritable gamut of emotions when the truth is revealed with such raw honesty.

Final comments: Once again in her Director’s Note, Sabryn Rock writes “This funny, powerful and heartbreaking script has cracked me open in a way I didn’t expect.” She’s correct on this account as I too have begun to check my opinions at the door regarding the issue of immigration into this country.

‘our place’ opens the door to continue that conversation about those who immigrate to Canada. There may be questions on why many undocumented folks arrive, but do we really understand the risks these individuals have taken or have made for an investment in their future as Ms. Rock points out further in her Note?

We need to continue that conversation. ‘our place’ should be that place for everyone – a place to call ours where we all feel safe and valued within the community.

Kanika Ambrose’s 'our place' duly respects that inclusive vision for Canada.

Running Time: approximately two hours with no intermission.

‘our place’ runs until December 3 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, visit passemuraille.ca or call (416) 504-7529.

our place by Kanika Ambrose
A Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille Co-production world premiere

Produced by Lisa Alves
Directed by Sabryn Rock
Production Manager: Maya Royer
Set and Costume Designer: Sim Suzer
Lighting Designer: Shawn Henry
Sound Designer: NON
Intimacy Coordinator: Anita Nittoly
Choreographer: Virgilia Griffith
Video Designer: Shayne Levine
Captions Operator: JD Darawi

Performers: Virgilia Griffith, Tremaine Nelson, Pablo Ogunlesi, Sophia Walker

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