Lela & Co. (Discord and Din Theatre/Seventh Stage Productions)
It might be best to start with the trigger warnings, recently added after a walkout on opening night for Cordelia Lynn’s play: “Gun and war sound effects; simulated sexual violence against women.” There is much more of the latter in this play (which is debuting in Canada after its 2015 opening in the playwright’s native London), a devastating account of a young woman forced into sexual slavery in a war-torn country.
Lela (played with clear-eyed commitment by Jenna Harris, herself an accomplished playwright) starts at the beginning, with her birth and childhood. She has an exceptional memory for details, but in telling recitation, she’s frequently interrupted by the male figures (all portrayed by Graham Cuthbertson) in her story as she tells it (a plot device Toronto audiences may recall from Rachel Blair’s A Man Walks Into A Bar).
As Lela comes into adulthood, she learns not to contradict these men, and her family circumstances go from restricted but safe, to isolated and threatened. Her world shrinks from her village, to an apartment, to a room. As her world contracts, the men cease interrupting her; her story no longer matters to them, as she has become property, the “product” of the play’s title. During this monologue by her “husband,” laid out in chillingly crisp detail by Cuthbertson’s most ruthless character, Lela occupies herself by scrubbing the in-the-round stage—with her bare hands. With her world reduced to a four windowless walls, cleanliness becomes one of her only ways of controlling her environment.
Lack of a trigger warning aside, Seventh Stage, director Melissa-Jane Shaw’s feminist-focused theatre company, has put a lot of thought into programming this harrowing show with Discord and Din Theatre. There are talkbacks after each performance, with representatives from organizations like White Ribbon and [free-them]; Shaw has even provided a direct phone number in the program for audience members seeking support or ideas for activist involvement.
From a comparison with the London reviews, Shaw has also done some adaption as well, situating the story in a specific war and time, and expanding Cuthbertson’s roles somewhat, including a Canadian peacekeeper as one of Lela’s “clients.” It’s an effort to drive home our complicity, and wilful blindness to the continued existence of sexual slaves even within our own borders.
There’s a “happy” ending of sorts, in which Lela, despite great hardship and loss, escapes back to her village and is welcomed back. But maybe, she suggests, that’s the comfortable lie again, the convenient one perpetrated like the others, and she hints that she now lives somewhere in the middle. The telling of her story is the only justice she has available to her, even if it’s only partly her truth.
To October 5, The Theatre Centre Incubator (1115 Queen Street West), Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m., $15-$30 (Sunday PWYC matinees).