Calpurnia, a joint NAC English Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/Black Theatre Workshop production, is billed as “an explosive new comedy, confronting the classic To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’ve read the book and I’d seen the film recently (my fourth viewing) and loved it. And when interviewed, the playwright, Audrey Dwyer, said her number one goal was that the audience gets a good laugh, and that her second goal was that they evaluate their reactions to the book or film in today’s world. So I was eager to see Calpurnia.
So too, obviously, was the audience on opening night. It was the first night of the Rolling Thunder Ottawa motorcycle convoy and the NAC building was in the middle of the police’s Red Zone. Nevertheless, there were quite a few people in the audience; I’d guess a third of the seats were filled. Most of the audience laughed at the funny bits, especially in the second act, and almost all of the audience gave the actors a standing ovation.
I didn’t appreciate this farce as much, possibly because my guest and I had trouble hearing much of the three female characters’ lines in the first act. This was surprising, since the actors have lots of professional acting experience.
The NAC’s news release stated one of the play’s objectives was “Proving beyond doubt that no one is perfectly right and no one is perfectly wrong. Calpurnia leaves us gobsmacked in the best possible way.” But for me, the production failed to achieve this objective.
The play’s characters have some modern-day parallels with To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Atticus Finch, Lawrence, the father in Calpurnia, is also a widower whose beautiful wife died years ago, leaving him to raise his two children, a boy (Mark) and a girl (Julie), with much assistance from a housekeeper. Though both fathers are in the legal profession, Lawrence is a wealthy retired Black Toronto judge in the 21st century and Atticus is an Alabama small-town white lawyer during the Great Depression. Lawrence’s children are adults; Atticus’ children are in elementary school. However, both families’ housekeepers are not white: Lawrence’s housekeeper, Precy, is Filipino and Atticus’ housekeeper, Calpurnia, is Black. In the play, it’s quickly obvious that there are a lot of similarities between Precy and Calpurnia.
Julie is an aspiring screenwriter (her father has already lined up a prestigious Hollywood agent for her). She’s picked her subject: the present-day oppression of Black women, especially the “mammy culture” she’s sure exists everywhere, as it did in To Kill a Mockingbird. Julie (and the play’s program notes) describes the “mammy” in our culture as a racial caricature of an ample, ever-smiling Black woman who can be trusted to follow orders and never speak up. A mammy loves her employer’s family and does a good job raising their children. There is no evidence that she has a life or a family of her own. And a mammy is, ultimately, invisible to the family that employs her.
What does Julie know of the oppression of Black women? She’s lived a privileged existence as her wealthy father’s child. She knows no Black women (other than her very successful mother, who died years ago). Matter of fact, the only Black people Julie knows are her father and her brother. So she says “I’m doing my own research using Google.” (Where have we heard that phrase recently?) She is completely convinced that mammy culture is rife in Toronto and the rest of North America. And she’s furious about it.
What she fails to see, but what the audience sees very clearly, right from the first few minutes of the play, is that she and her family are treating Precy in much the same way as Julie claims Atticus Finch treats Calpurnia. This achieves one of the other objectives in the NAC’s news release: “Simmering under the surface of Julie’s mission is a glaring hypocrisy of which she is blithely unaware.” Actually, all the characters are “blithely unaware” of it.
How this farce unfolds—as well as how two white characters (Christine, who is Mark’s girlfriend and Julie’s best friend, and James, a high-powered lawyer who is invited for dinner) who are “woke” and trying to be allies—is the crux of this play.
Calpurnia is playing at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St) in the Babs Asper Theatre until May 7. The performance starts at 7:30pm. The play is 2 hours long, including an intermission. The NAC warns that there are mature themes, strong language and haze during the production. Visit nac-cna.ca for more information and tickets.