Trish Cooper’s Social Studies is an absolute must see. At the heart of this charming family scenario is a subject matter deep and timely that manages to drive home its point with compassion and love. Revolving around the Lost Boys of Sudan, the play brings to light all the issues we once again find headlined by the Syrian refugees. What does it actually mean to take in someone who has experienced the atrocities of a brutal war intent on genocide and how do they adjust to a vastly different society?
Slow to start the play begins when Jackie (Erin Moon), has just returned home after the break-up of her marriage only to have her teenage sister Sarah (Lili Beaudoin) inform her that their mother Val (Susinn McFarlen) has given her room to Deng (Richie Diggs), one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. As the relationships unfold and the characters find themselves in comic misunderstandings, Cooper underlines how misinterpretations and mix-ups can result from language barriers and vastly different cultural values. Whether it is the scene where Deng asks Sarah to leave the living room because he has an ugly girl in the basement (which to him means immoral) or Deng finds Jackie watching a gay love scene, Cooper highlights these differences well, despite sometimes over working the jokes. Yet between poking fun of Deng’s differences and his lack of understanding of Canadian culture and language, Cooper develops strong characters whose family bond is at the heart of the story.
Wrapped up in a comedic edge the first half of the play yields some important insights but the inconsistent pacing loses some of what Cooper is trying to develop. At times Cooper seems to nail the issues inside the jokes but often they get buried in cliché. The second act takes a harder look at the depth of the issues that arise and the difficulties facing everyone involved. Yet we can see that the characters are developing trust and deep bonds.
The actors stand up to the writing delivering strong performances. Jackie who vocalizes the doubts and prejudice driven by fear, misunderstanding and self-absorption represents the “western problem” theme running throughout the play. Her mother Val, while somewhat flakey, is a kind-hearted individual who sees the flaws in Jackie but loves her anyway. Sarah, who is the most mature of the three women, gives an impassioned performance that really draws us in.
But it is Deng who really captures us and drives the play. It is the development of his relationship with each of the other characters and his desire to be accepted into his new family that really wins us over. He is honourable, helping his sister left behind in Africa, and the people who are struggling back in the tiny room he just left. Yet, he is not without flaws—caught up in credit card debt and wowed by Jackie’s new SUV and the power that the status of the expensive automobile brings. He is real.
By the end of the play the bond formed over the last two hours is solid. Deng tells Sarah he does not want her to know his dreams. We see his pain without seeing his nightmare. We can only imagine how bad they must be. And in the end we are brought back to the Lost Boy telling us his story. We are captured, engaged, made to question ourselves and think. Cooper has done a stellar job at this and any slow starts are forgiven by her taking a chance on some hard questions which unfortunately continue to be relevant today and that we all should still be asking ourselves. See this play if not for the laughs, for the thoughtfulness and the love.
On at the Firehall Arts Centre until December 5th
Photo by Emily Cooper