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'Universal Child Care'

Now onstage at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre

Courtesy of Canadian Stage website

Zoe Marin

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I sobbed. I laughed. I screamed. I need the cast album yesterday.”

The new show from Quote Unquote Collective, ‘Universal Child Care’ uses a capella singing, stand-up comedy, physical theatre, and projections to discuss the four richest countries with the least accessible child care: the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Japan.

Co set designers Lorenzo Savoini and Michelle Tracey present the households of specific families from each country. In the top left is a former dancer (Takako Segawa) unable to secure a spot in Japan’s fussy daycare system. To her right is a queer mixed-race couple (Fiona Sauder and Anika Venkatesh) forced to move to a smaller, less progressive neighborhood when London becomes too expensive to support a child. Below them is an American couple (Germaine Konji and Joema Frith) from Detroit, Michigan overwhelmed with the costs of raising a baby in the U.S. To their left is a Canadian couple (Sadava and Alex Samaras) falling victim to the ways “maternity leave” affects future job security for women. To tie it all together, there is our Emcee: Teresa (Mónica Garrido Huerta), an undocumented nanny/ stand-up comedian from Mexico.

‘Universal Child Care’ begins in-vitro, engulfing the audience with swirls of fog, melodic ensemble breathing, and colorful backdrop projections (designed by potatoCakes_digital) representing the womb. A pregnant woman (Konji) steps out and walks to the center stage mic. In labor, she moans/screams/sings/cries as the ensemble’s vocalizations grow louder and more complex in solidarity with her. She then gives birth to a round luminous ball which henceforth will represent babies throughout the piece. Finally, harsh reality swiftly ends the magic of this birth scene when the hospital presents the American parents with the bill.

The exact numbers for each individual part of the birthing process inundate the set, too hectically to understand fully the information but just enough to understand how it feels.
What this production does best is express how incredibly overwhelming, exhausting, and incomprehensible parenting can be with such little support available. In addition to the statistics that are presented on screen, Matt Smith’s sound design features compilations from pop culture, news clips, real testimonies, and the characters to show the innumerable ways lack of affordable child care affects families.

While we don’t get many specific details about each family, we understand their plights, their desires, and their exhaustion with every song they sing. There are some very catchy upbeat songs such as a British rock song about how unaffordable London is or the doo-wop style anthem to underpaid child care workers (which I CAN NOT get out of my head). There are also several ballads that made me cry so hard I thought I might start dry heaving in the audience.

While all the parents feel shunned out by their respective systems, there is still a sense of togetherness within the individual couples. They’re all drowning financially, the women in the straight relationships are stuck at home while their husbands go to work, and we know the struggle is perpetual because they can’t afford child care. However, even within those tough situations, we at least get moments of the couples struggling together. The performers have great chemistry with each other, which really shines in the duets.

It is the isolation of the Japanese mother and Teresa that I found the most emotional. ‘Universal Child Care’ first introduces the former through a voice over of the woman explaining why she can’t get a spot in a nursery. She has a husband, which means she doesn’t need the nursery. If she divorces her husband, but he lives nearby, then she doesn’t need the nursery. If she moves, but her child’s grandparents live nearby, she doesn’t need the nursery. If she has groceries when she picks up her child from the nursery, it means she has time to shop, and therefore doesn’t need the nursery. She is losing points at every turn, and begins to accept that she may never return to her life as a dancer. The scene is overwhelming through the frantic English subtitles surrounding her “room” in the set, vocalizations from other cast members to match her emotions, and especially through the movement.

Orian Michaeli’s choreography throughout exemplifies organized chaos, filled with fast, erratic movements that often settle in the same repeated gestures. The ensemble performs a set of baby-coddling gestures that become a central motif of the show– reminding us what the characters’ focus could be if there weren’t a million other issues surrounding them at all times.

The comic relief in this relatively depressing story comes from Teresa, the show’s host and magical nanny who steps in and out of the different households as needed. Throughout the show, we learn bits of her personal story. She’s an undocumented immigrant from Mexico working as a child care worker for American children. She is paid far below minimum wage, and is taking care of far more children than legally permitted. After spending the entire show tending to parents’ and audience’s needs, she finally takes a sick day– throwing the cast into a frenzy. They step into the audience and beg people to take care of their kids, highlighting how underappreciated yet essential child care workers are.

In a turn of events, her own two small children show up on screen. Maybe it’s because Spanish is a language I associate with my own family, but when the kids started speaking to Teresa, tears shot right out of my eyes. Then when Teresa finally sings the show’s 11 o'clock number about loving her children, tears just kept pouring out of my eyes.

Regardless of your experience with parenting, 'Universal Child Care' will make you angry, sad, happy, or at the very least, empathetic to these experiences. So when Teresa invites everyone in the theatre to scream with her for a full ten seconds, it’d be hard to find anyone who doesn’t feel compelled.

Running time: approximately 80-100 minutes with no interval/intermission.

The production runs until February 25 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto. For tickets, visit canadianstage.com or call (416) 368-3110. To learn more: https://www.canadianstage.com/show/universal-child-care

Universal Child Care
Created by Quote Unquote Collective commissioned by BroadStage, Santa Monica, in association with Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre and the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, presented by Canadian Stage.

Story: Akosua Amo-Adem, Vicky Araico, Seiko Nakazawa, Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava, Stephanie Sourial.

Book by Nostbakken and Sadava (Quote Unquote Collective co-artistic directors)

Music & lyrics and direction by Amy Nostbakken.

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