A Cahoots Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille Co-Production
our place invites us into the Jerk Pork Castle—a small, West Indian food joint tucked into a Scarborough strip mall. It is 2016. As news of the influx of Syrian refugees flashes across a small television mounted in the corner, we get our first hints of tension. Andrea (Virgilia Griffith) and Niesha (Sophia Walker), two undocumented Caribbean women, argue over the fast-tracking of immigration processes for these newcomers. Decades of struggle for their own displaced community fosters resentment, but the real antagonist is a broken system.
As they go about the mundane closing routines at the restaurant, Griffith and Walker banter in a fluid, rhythmic cadence that pulls us into their world. Both mothers with children back home, Andrea and Niesha have the same ultimate goal: create a stable life in Canada and eventually bring their children over. Their contrasting strategies—revealed in their dealings with the men of the story—give us insights into their hilarious, often poignant dynamic.
Andrea, the younger, is flamboyant and freewheeling. Making a grand show of dressing up for her nights on the town with Malcolm (Tremaine Nelson), she hopes her playful antics will lead to solid commitment. As Malcolm, Tremaine is warm and suave. Clearly in it for the fun, his charm is so guileless and good-natured, he never seems skeezy. Their casual relationship works for them both until differing expectations strain it.
Niesha is the more guarded of the two. It takes her a while to warm up to the persistent advances of Eldritch (Pablo Ogunlesi). Ogunlesi oozes charisma and I found myself falling for his endearing overtures long before Niesha does. As her defences drop, we share her giddy joy. Even before she makes herself completely vulnerable, Walker allows us stealthy glimpses into Niesha’s romantic, optimistic side.
Playwright Kanika Ambrose has a gift for beautifully immersive dialogue. As these characters converse, we are drawn in by the persuasive vocal patterns. With the help of dialect coach Alicia Richardson, the actors make the rich linguistics of the Caribbean dialect their own. I imagine most audience members will adjust to the colloquial dialogue, but for those struggling with the language, phonetic text is displayed on an overhead screen.
Ambrose examines the difficult choices faced by illegal immigrants. Exploited by unscrupulous landlords and employers, they are forced to also take advantage of each other. The story is fair to each of them, fostering our understanding of and empathy for all concerned. Even as our stomachs lurch with the harsh realities of strategic marriages and under-the-table employment, a desperate humanity resonates in everyone.
A vital aspect of our place is the way it captures a community’s resilience, that tenacious adaptability and unflappable sense of fun that holds these people up even in the most dire of situations. Towards the end, though guts are wrenched, they find humour in their plight. The audience is invited to the party, offered an intimate space among these characters.
A few subtle audio-visual enhancements transition us from scene to scene, but director Sabryn Rock doesn’t rely on many stylistic flourishes. She maintains a solid, consistent realism throughout, allowing us to vibe with these people yet always drawing our attention to purposeful nuances. In both the depressingly accurate hotel room that figures in the final scenes and the iconic Jerk Pork Castle set, designer Sim Suzer achieves an understated authenticity.
It is obviously too soon to anticipate the play’s legacy, but our place feels like a genuine Canadian classic. Slice of life doesn’t quite do justice to the astonishingly vivid sense of people and place it evokes. I loved the time I spent with these four people and miss them greatly.