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Review: UNIVERSAL CHILD CARE at Canadian Stage

Quote Unquote Collective's lush soundscape screams for change

By: Feb. 19, 2024
Review: UNIVERSAL CHILD CARE at Canadian Stage  Image
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“Every great love affair,” writes poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, “begins with a scream.” The scream Ackerman is referring to is a baby’s first cry, as she explores how our brains are permanently shaped by the connections we forge with parents and caregivers in infancy. “We all agree that the first five years of a child’s life are the most important,” agrees Quote Unquote Collective’s UNIVERSAL CHILD CARE, now at Canadian Stage.

With important messages for policymakers and babymakers alike, the urgent performance is part political statement, part a cappella concert, and all cri de coeur about the frustrations of being a parent when nothing is affordable and nobody cares.

Even as a teenager, I had a sinking feeling that I’d never want children despite societal expectations, a feeling that was only confirmed as I continued to age and the thought of motherhood seemed no more appealing. I can’t say that UNIVERSAL CHILD CARE changed my mind on that front; Amy Nostbakken’s (director, music and lyrics composer, and book writer with Norah Sadava) show instead pointedly entrenching further the fear that, though societal expectations of parenthood and parental performance remain constant, the support for these decisions is nearly nonexistent from either community or government.

As you enter the theatre, you’re confronted with a large white box, subdivided into four smaller boxes that form the “rooms” for parents from four wealthy countries: Japan, the UK, Canada, and the US (set by Lorenzo Savoini and Michelle Tracey). The cast climbs in and out of this two-story set, using ladders on the side or swinging themselves bodily into the rooms, which are covered with transparent screens on which dispiriting facts are projected (designed by potatoCakes_digital):

Eighteen percent of women taking parental leave in Canada lose their jobs, while only 4% of those file wrongful termination claims. America is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have a federal mandate requiring paid parental leave. In Japan, if you get lucky enough to earn enough points via the system that might grant you childcare, you don’t want to show up to pick up your kids toting groceries, which shows you have free time to shop and are therefore not a deserving enough recipient of the system; dare to have a second child, and the first one can no longer go to daycare because it’s assumed the mother will now stay home for practical and economic reasons. More than a quarter of parents living in London, England have had to move due to the staggering costs of childcare.

Meanwhile, things literally do begin with a scream, a virtuosic opening of tones, grunts, and howls from Germaine Konji that represent the miracle of birth (the child emerges, a literal glowing orb), before you’re immediately on your own. If you’re a fan of a cappella music, the numbers in UNIVERSAL CHILD CARE are stunning, ranging from a Britpop number from the interracial lesbian parents (Fiona Sauder and Anika Venkatesh) about how “nobody can afford to live in London,” to the Canadian father’s (Alex Samaras) lament that his wife (Sadava) keeps telling him she’s okay while he can tell she’s not, to a Japanese woman (Takako Segawa), a former dancer, pacing around as her husband refuses to divorce her and her chances for freedom and a job of her own dwindle.

The Detroit-dwelling husband (Joema Frith) details how many jobs they have to work to pay back the hospital bills from the normal birth, while his wife (Konji), still singing, methodically puts a post-surgical diaper on before dragging herself to work days after the birth. The chorus creates beautiful soundscapes that add weight and pathos to the already hard-hitting facts, pointillist portraits out of sound. It’s all gorgeous, but Venkatesh in particular has an operatic solo that may send some chills down your spine that aren’t from an epidural.

It's not all doom and gloom. Our narrator for the evening is Teresa (Mónica Garrida Huerta), an undocumented childcare worker from Mexico who left her own children to come care for the children of others. She’s the show’s stand-up comedian, joking with and lecturing us in the tone you get when you talk to children for 16 hours a day, before producing snacks from within her clothing and throwing them into the audience, warning us they may be somewhat “moist.” She provides the key thread between these four different stories, showing us things from an outside eye that provides yet another perspective on a struggle that’s also rarely documented and lightening the mood before the next gut (uterus?) punch.

The ambitious piece, commissioned by BroadStage, Santa Monica, in association with Nightwood Theatre, Why Not Theatre and the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund, uses Teresa’s presence to ask its pivotal question: if these years are so crucial, then why do we treat both new parents and the people paid a pittance to care for their children so terribly?

Though none of the struggles on stage will likely ever be my own, I found myself intensely and viscerally moved by the show. While the characters (save Teresa, whose fourth-wall breaking makes her completely three-dimensional) ultimately feel more like representational demographics than complete people, the pain that they feel is very real: the joy of having a child resulting in massive losses of career, community, and identity pulsates viscerally through song and scream.

Interestingly, my companion, who had her first child during the first year of the pandemic, was less moved than I was; not, as I assumed, because she’s already more immersed in the topic, but because she felt that the actual children, represented solely by glowing orbs except for in one moving video sequence, were absent from the stage and therefore the conversation.

But, perhaps, that’s the point: we live in a country that’s forgetting the children, forcing us to concentrate on pressures like keeping a roof overhead and our sanity under control over focusing on the fragile, delicate beings that matter most.

Photo of Universal Child Care cast by Dahlia Katz


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