Family comes in many forms. With blood family, we must make do with what we’re born into, whether it’s wonderful, challenging or a little bit of both. Then there’s chosen family, neighbourhood family, work family—our understanding of the word is ever changing. Social Studies explores both the value and meaning of family. Through laughter and tenderness, the two-act play asks us, as Canadians, to consider our privilege. Written by Winnipeg playwright and actor Trish Cooper, the play premiered at Prairie Theatre Exchange in 2013 and makes a timely Vancouver debut at the Firehall Arts Centre, directed by Artistic Producer Donna Spencer.
It’s Winnipeg, 2006. New Age-y single mother Val (Susinn McFarlen) and her jock teenage daughter Sarah (Lili Beaudoin), have just taken in Deng (Richie Diggs), a Sudanese refugee who recently immigrated. Val’s elder daughter Jackie (Erin Moon) returns home for some TLC following a messy divorce, and is distressed to find her room inhabited by a stranger. As the months go by, Deng jumbles the previously set-in-stone familial dynamics of these three women. Sixteen-year-old Sarah interviews Deng for her social studies project on the Lost Boys of Sudan (the name given to the 20,000 boys who were orphaned and displaced during the Sudanese civil war). It opens the play and is presented in fragments throughout, with accompanying video footage. The closer Sarah gets to Deng, the more she questions her feelings for him. Jackie resents her mother’s glorification of Deng and acts out through a series of childish outbursts. Meanwhile, Deng tries his best to acclimatize to this new place and family, and is repeatedly caught in the crossfire.
Inspired by real events, Cooper brings comedic chops to a politically complex story. While the play’s unnecessarily long running time leads to pacing issues throughout, Cooper nails the family dynamics at any given moment. The characters are multi-faceted and believable and the dialogue has the approachability of a well-written sitcom. Set designer Alison Green and lighting designer Matt Frankish create a world that has all the warmth and welcome of a much-loved family home. Sabrina Evertt’s costumes date the story, immediately landing us in 2006.
Spencer’s direction is mainly spot-on, nailing the “kitchen sink” genre and giving the Firehall audience what they want—an entertaining and heartwarming evening at the theatre. At times the style feels overly theatrical given the size of the venue. This theatricality ramps up the farcical elements, however, and there are many wholehearted laughs. As Val, McFarlen brings her signature flair. She’s watchable, lovable and a real treat to behold. Beaudoin and Diggs bring shaded nuance to Sarah and Deng, particularly in the later scenes of the play. Jackie embodies the obnoxious and ignorant first-world archetype, and Moon has the difficult job of keeping the audience on her side. Her shrill self-absorption becomes trying, but the character’s evolution over the course of the play proves satisfying.
Our newly elected government announced on Tuesday that 10,000 refugees will arrive in Canada before the end of December, with 15,000 more landing in the first months of 2016. In her Director’s Note in the program, Spencer writes, “Social Studies asks us to consider and understand the value and richness gained from helping others.” Indeed it does, in a palatable and gentle manner.
However, I believe we must go one step further than consideration. We must act, as the characters in this play demonstrate. It is my hope that Social Studies’ audiences are compelled, as I am, to find practical and concrete ways of extending a helping hand. Let’s keep evolving our collective understanding of the word “family.”
Social Studies is on at the Firehall Arts Centre until December 5th. For tickets and more information, please visit firehallartscentre.ca.
Sasha Singer-Wilson is a Vancouver based and Toronto bred theatre artist and writer. She makes theatrical things with immersive theatre company the blood projects and tiny literary things with these five minutes. Sasha is an Associate Producer of Brave New Play Rites and is an MFA candidate in Playwriting at The University of British Columbia.