A modern look at an old classic

‘Calpurnia’ starts strong but presents more questions than answers

RMTC, NAC English Cheater and Black Theatre Workshop present - Calpurnia By Audrey Dwyer† March 24 – April 16, 2022 Director / Dramaturg - Sarah Garton Stanley Set Designer - Rachel Forbes Costume Designer - Joseph Abetria† Lighting Designer - Hugh Conacher Sound Designer - Chris Coyne Cultural Consultan - Hazel Venzon† Assistant Directo - Nikki Shaffeeullah Assistant Set Designer - Shauna Jones‡ Stage Manager - Michael Duggan†§ Assistant Stage Manager - Zahra Larche Apprentice Stage Manager - Ridge Romanishen THE CAST (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER) Mark Gordon - Kwaku Adu-Poku Christine Charte - Ellie Ellwand Precy Cabigting - Rochelle Kives James Thompson - Arne MacPherson Julie Gordon - Emerjade Simms Lawrence Gordon - Ray Strachan† *Position funded through the Jean Murray - Moray Sinclair Theatre Apprenticeship Program †Past Jean Murray - Moray Sinclair Scholarship award recipient ‡Position funded through the Kingfisher Foundation §Past Naomi Levin Theatre Scholarship award winner

Just in time for World Theatre Day on March 27, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has mounted Calpurnia, a provocative work written by the theatre’s own associate artistic director Audrey Dwyer. The play explores the significant issues of privilege, race and intersectionality, but is billed as a comedy — a challenging balance to maintain.

Calpurnia centres on a wealthy Jamaican-Canadian family living in Toronto, Ont. It opens with the main character, Julie Gordon, sitting at a kitchen table, watching the film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for the umpteenth time. An aspiring screenwriter, she is attempting to rewrite the events of the classic novel from the point of view of the Finch family’s African-American maid, Calpurnia.

The first act focuses on her family’s reactions to her project, particularly her brother Mark’s, who reveres both Lee’s original text and the film adaptation and even cites Atticus Finch as his personal hero. While they argue, their Filipina housekeeper Precy prepares for an important dinner party that will grant Mark a position at a big law firm.

The parallels between the Finchs and the Gordons are clear. Both families have a widowed father in a law-related field — Atticus is a lawyer, while Julie and Mark’s dad Lawrence is a retired judge. Both families have a sensitive and introspective son and a daughter who questions the world they live in and pursues social justice in her own way. And, finally, both families have a person of colour as hired help who also acts as a mother figure.

Julie serves as a foil to Scout, a plucky young lady who still has much to learn. The difference is that Scout is a White child living in the segregated South during the 1930s, while Julie is a Black post-graduate student who studied critical race theory in modern-day Canada.

Each actor is effortless in portraying their character. University of Manitoba alumnus Ray Strachan is somehow both bumbling and imposing in his role as an immigrant father who strives to make his children’s lives easier so they do not have to struggle in the same ways he did. Kwaku Adu-Poku and Emerjade Simms are natural and believable as siblings and Rochelle Kives is a quiet but noticeable presence as Precy. She is onstage for most of the performance and remains in-character even when out of focus. Her dedication to the role is admirable.

The set — courtesy of Rachel Forbes — is, in a word, magnificent. It is sleek, modern and massive, with three levels and a functional kitchen, and gives the impression of a sweeping Forest Hill house. The preshow music transports audiences to the Caribbean with calypso party songs such as “Dollar Wine,” “Follow the Leader” and “Roll It, Gal.” As fun and infectious as this is, though, there seems to be a disconnect between the music and the weighty subject matter of the play.

Things become more dissonant in the second act, with a surprising comedic turn from Julie at her brother’s dinner party. It felt as though there were two plays in one, a drama for the first half and a comedy for the second.

While Calpurnia presents a good effort at bringing comedy to such complex and critical issues, it could have benefited from a more nuanced approach. The ending leaves you wanting more closure but presents a lot to unpack and provides the foundation for further discourse.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production of Calpurnia runs until April 16. For more information, please visit royalmtc.ca.