Rachel Mutombo’s Vierge, getting its world premiere at Factory Theatre, is sometimes contradictory and uneven, not unlike the psyches of its teenage characters. Like the four young Congolese-Canadian women whose world we’re invited into, the play itself feels wrenched about by cultural attitudes, social pressure and hormonal spikes. I’m still unpacking my feelings about this story, which somehow seems both progressive and puritanical in its messaging.
Perhaps understanding it in terms of messaging is reductive, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We open on our central character, a newcomer to the neighbourhood, Divine (Shauna Thompson), as she prepares to meet the other girls in the bible study group she’s now leading. A keener, she’s enthusiastic about her religious duties, and is immediately set apart from the other girls. Her modest language and reserved posture is at odds with the brash vibes of Grace (Yvonne Addai), Sarah (JD Leslie) and Bien-Aimé (Kudakwashe Rutendo).
She’s uncomfortable with all their talk of alcohol and sex; they, in kind, are put off by her inadvertent value judgements and poke fun at her straight-laced conditioning. Removed from her Congolese roots, they give her a Lingala nickname that means “white person.” As the story unfolds, Divine becomes increasingly offended by this slight.
In the early scenes, the play establishes the tense yet playful dynamic between these young women. Mutombo’s script is bursting with rich, colourful banter as they sand off their rough edges with genuine—albeit hit-and-miss—mutual understanding. They never do get through The Book of Ruth—a running joke—as family drama, local gossip and rivalries distract them.
Mutombo also balances out the time invested in each character. Divine is a central figure in so much as she is the only one whose internal world is examined, but this is, essentially, a well-rounded ensemble. Natasha Mumba’s direction maintains an naturalistic atmosphere punctuated by brief moments of heightened theatricality whenever we are taken into Divine’s headspace. With only a few awkward hiccups—brief moments of contrived blocking and an unconvincing stage slap—the performances are layered and compelling and a lot of fun.
Joyce Padua’s costumes tell us exactly how these women want the world to see them and the contrasting sensibilities is a visual delight. Rachel Forbes’ set really places us in that drab church basement. The off-white and institutional green is spot on. There are artful holes in the walls that expose hidden objects. A collection of crucifixes, cutlery and serving ware—there is a mix of religious and domestic tools. Trying to parse the meaning of this intriguing element, I wondered if it suggests stolen Indigenous artifacts (or, perhaps, of Congolese origin?) lurking in the foundations of the church—a thematic flourish, past violations coming to the surface?
Jareth Li gives us vivid, thrilling glimpses of a wild upstairs party in full swing with pulsing colour through a doorway. My favourite aspect of his design though is the pale blue twilight illuminating the window. All of the design elements here are nuanced and on point! I knew exactly where these people are and could almost smell the stagnant air around them.
Gradually, the tension mounts as rumours fly. There family secrets and scandals are brought to light. It is here that Mutombo’s script starts to falter. In a jarring tonal and stylistic shift, we go from easy, casual, character-building banter to Bien-Aimé’s expository monologue about a traumatic abuse of power. Her story is appalling and believable, but the writing is too clumsily expository to feel as authentic as what came before.
From this point on, I found my investment waning. The drama fixates on such trivial conflicts, which is in line with their age, I suppose, but the weight afforded to these petty squabbles seems odd in the wake of such an intense bombshell. And the final moment is somewhat baffling to me. At the risk of veering into spoiler territory, Divine’s perceived fall from grace felt irksome. Is she slut-shaming herself? Is the play aligning itself with her inordinately devastating sense of regret and validating it?
Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the play’s intentions here. Regardless, it felt culturally specific, tricky to reconcile, and ultimately demanding some discussion. These characters inner lives and interpersonal connections are fraught with conflicting religious, sexual and social mores; it makes sense, perhaps, that the play gets caught between reckless, youthful abandon and uneasy moralizing.