Review: OUR PLACE at Theatre Passe Muraille

Beautiful play about Canada's broken immigration system is a must-see

By: Nov. 25, 2022
Review: OUR PLACE at Theatre Passe Muraille
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What would you do to stay in Canada? In Kanika Ambrose's OUR PLACE, produced by Cahoots Theatre at Theatre Passe Muraille, Andrea (Virgilia Griffith) and Niesha (Sophia Walker), immigrants without papers, dream of better lives for themselves and their children back home. As CityTV blares in the background, showing images of Justin Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees with open arms, the women wonder when it will be their turn, and if they'll ever truly have a chance at the Canadian Dream without fearing arrest around every corner. Due to the pandemic, the show was postponed twice; now, like a dream deferred, it explodes onto the stage with verve and pathos.

From two imaginary Caribbean countries, Caviva and Fanon, (the characters' accents are alsoan amalgam of four dialects to preserve anonymity), Andrea and Niesha couldn't be more different. Andrea initially gives off the unworried vibe of someone who is here for a good time, not a long time. She dallies with Malcolm (Tremaine Nelson), a man who doesn't want to put labels on anything and "just chill." Niesha is a constant dark cloud, a diligent worker who stays late to cover Andrea's early exits for dates. Alternately grumpy and jumpy, she is under constant stress of getting caught, obsessively watching the news Andrea hates.

In their chosen country, opportunity seems limitless to earn some cash and find a community; however, at the same time, they find scammers willing to take advantage of fear and loneliness. High rents eat away at their illegally low wages from an employer willing to pay under the table in exchange for long days worked without complaint.

When Eldrick (Pablo Ogunlesi), a construction worker who got his citizenship years ago, takes a sudden and intense interest in Niesha, asking her out and offering her an immigration lifeline, it seems to good to be true. But is it?

Griffith and Walker are an absolutely delightful odd couple. Ambrose's script, which smoothly blends sly wit and tragic situations, gives them every opportunity to bicker with and tease each other, sparking frustration but also affection. Though Niesha puts up a standoffish front, it soon becomes clear she and Andrea are each other's confidante and lifeline; circumstance may have brought them together, but their shared hardship has produced a supportive bond. Andrea's glee when Niesha finally seems to give herself permission to live a little is palpable, and no matter how much she rolls her eyes at Andrea's antics, Niesha still genuinely offers her support when Andrea's situation becomes untenable.

At the centre of the play, Niesha remains resolute in her desire to stay under the radar while keeping her head down, until she allows herself to hope for something different. Walker's gradual thawing is a sunny day in the midst of a rough Toronto winter, gentle and tentative only to re-freeze at the first cold wind. Ogunlesi's Eldrick is that changeable wind, blowing into the restaurant with an easy smile and using his charm as a man used to getting what he wants to stay just on the acceptable side of overt obnoxiousness. His ability to switch from talk of sweet nothings to harsh realities makes you question which he truly believes.

Finally, while his role is more understated, Nelson has his own quiet arc as Malcolm, whose confusion as he starts to wonder what he really feels for Andrea and becomes aware of her growing desperation for help gives his character a greater complexity than anticipated.

Under the sharp direction of Sabryn Rock, the production makes excellent use of the Passe Muraille space. In the centre, with audience on three sides, is the very realistic inside of Scarborough's Jerk Pork Castle (designed by Sim Suzer), complete with Jamaican patties and drink fridge. To the side, a hotel bedroom atop a set of stairs promises future drama. The characters claim the whole space, using load-bearing pillars to put up neighbourhood event posters, disappearing through the audience, and even popping up on the balcony. It's an engaging way to give us a sense of the wider world outside of the restaurant.

Video with closed captioning, mounted in a corner, provides additional accessibility for everyone to catch all of the fast-paced dialogue (you can sit on the far side if you don't want to see it).

Near the climax of the play, its refreshing realism gives way to an overt theatricality that is a little jarring. While it's also an effective way to highlight a key moment, I found myself wondering if more foreshadowing of that theatrical tone shift would have made it seem more inevitable and less sudden. As well, the intermission-less two hours, while mostly absorbing, starts to drag a little around the end, where some of the characters' debates could be tightened and equally make their important points.

Overall, however, OUR PLACE is an important work that should be seen by as many people as possible. Through its memorable characters and their struggles, it gives us a sensitive, thoughtful script about Canada's broken immigration system, which forces a survival and scarcity mentality among so many of those desperately seeking to surmount it.

"When is it my turn?" Andrea asks. After its postponements, it's finally OUR PLACE's turn to shine on stage. Don't miss it.

Photo of Virgilia Griffith by Gesilayefa Azorbo