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Calpurnia and The Quest to Write the Truth

February 9th, 2018     by Audrey Dwyer     Comments

Calpurnia by Audrey Dwyer

“When starting a play, I ask myself, “What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?” Then I force myself to write it. I do this because I’ve found that the best way to make theatre that unsettles and challenges my audience is to do things that make me uncomfortable. I work with stories that I find trite and embarrassing, I keep the development of the text as open and unstable as possible throughout the rehearsal and performance process, and I emphasize rather than hide problems in the text and production. I’m constantly trying to find value in unexpected places. My work is about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure and incompetence and not-knowing. The discomfort and awkwardness involved in watching this struggle reflects the truth of my experience.” - Young Jean Lee

Calpurnia began as a culmination of different ideas and experiences. I was in the Obsidian Theatre Playwriting Unit, working on a play that wasn’t going anywhere. I had a deadline coming up and I knew that I needed to come up with something more interesting, more full and more rigorous.

I’m a theatre artist that has been living in Toronto since 2001. Before that, I spent three years studying acting at The National Theatre School of Canada (Montreal, Quebec). I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. From 2001 to the present, I have performed across Canada and throughout the United States. I have also worked as a director, a dramaturge, a screenplay writer, a teacher, facilitator and mentor. Most recently, I was an Artistic Director of a children’s theatre company.

Over the years, I have played an assortment of maids. Some of them I played for the stories they were a part of. Other times, I played them to pay the bills. One time in particular, I played a maid so that I could spend a portion of the process in my hometown. That role allowed me to spend time with my aging parents for two months. No matter the reason, each time I put on a maid’s uniform I knew I could stand behind my choice for doing the role with pride. Even when I was playing a stereotype, I knew my artistic, creative and my financial needs were behind it.

When I began writing Calpurnia, I was acting in a play that dealt with race and class. It was set in two time periods – the first act, I played a maid. In the second act, I played a descendant of that maid. The play was set in America and the characters spoke boldly about race. In the first act, I didn’t have many lines. I was quite silent during a racist attack. It is common for actors to speak to each other about the roles they play. A co-actor spoke about how my silence seemed strong. I’m quite used to the stereotype that Black women suffer: that we are strong. As the character, I wasn’t feeling strong during the attack. As the character, I felt scared, angry and hurt. I didn’t have lines to speak so my silence wasn’t a choice. What was interesting to me was the idea that Black women who are silent during racial tirades are considered strong as opposed to silenced. I asked him to expand on his observation. He said that he felt that most women (in that character’s situation) were quiet back then. I asked him how he knew that. He said that he had seen that - the strong silent Black maid - in numerous plays, television shows and films. Black women were strong and silent. I couldn’t disagree with what he had seen. I, too, had seen these silent characters – in art primarily written by white authors.

My role and my function in that play inspired me to think differently about the role of the playwright in the theatre. Up until writing Calpurnia, I had only written one short fifteen-minute play as a member of Nightwood Theatre’s Write from the Hip Program. I had also written comedic sketches during my time as a member of Second City’s Touring Company.

I knew that I wanted to touch on themes of race, class and gender but I didn’t have the premise locked down. On top of being in a writer’s unit and performing in a play, I was also doing an internship at Cahoots Theatre. While I was there, I spoke with a dear friend named Derek Kwan, another performer. I asked him what he wanted to see in the theatre. He said that he wanted to see something complicated, a play with a play inside it, something that made him think.

I also knew that I wanted to create something that dealt with the past but shone a light on the present. After some thinking, I decided on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It was a book that I had studied in high school and I was familiar with the film version. Calpurnia was the maid in that novel. I thought that I could write a piece about a woman writing a script, who had writer’s block.

I had a deadline that was coming around the corner. One night after finishing a performance, I sat down and wrote the first draft of Calpurnia. It was only forty pages long. It was read for a public audience a few days later and numerous people were very interested in the piece. There was a lot of laughter that night and I received so much encouragement. I decided to stick with it and to keep developing it.

Calpurnia is a satirical comedy, which features Julie Gordon, a young Jamaican-Canadian writer who is in the middle stages of adapting Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird into a screenplay from the perspective of Calpurnia, the Finch family servant.

Satire is style that is meant to expose and criticize society by using humour, irony, and exaggeration. With satire, writers aim to improve humanity by criticizing its follies and faults. I wanted audiences to observe racism, privilege, class and allyship while laughing because I felt that that was the best way to engage with such intense material.

Julie, a writer and budding activist, suffers from writer’s block as her father, Lawrence, her brother Mark and her brother’s white girlfriend, Christine, celebrate her brother’s success as an up and coming lawyer. He’s taken on a difficult case and is making the papers. Julie’s father asks her to keep a secret: He has invited a high profile lawyer over for dinner to help move her brother’s career forward. In an argument, her brother informs her that she has no right to write about an African-American maid because she isn’t Black enough. He accuses her of appropriating a culture she doesn’t belong to. Julie decides to “do the work”. Calpurnia ends with her realizing that in order to make change, she needs to check her values and how she shares her talents because change can only begin from within.

Over the next few years, I spent most of my time reading books and watching films that dealt with the Mammy Stereotype. I read To Kill a Mockingbird numerous times and focused on each character in the novel. I decided that I wanted the characters in my play to be infused with elements of Harper Lee’s characters. I wasn’t interested in doing a complete recreation.

My primary focus was the character Calpurnia. I discovered that she was in fact, a perfect example of the Mammy stereotype – Black, a caregiver, without sexual desire, loyal, maternal, illiterate, non-threatening, obedient and submissive, and deferred to white authorities. Harper Lee hadn’t given Calpurnia a last name, which is a clear indicator of a one-dimensional character.

With all of that research in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to confront the audience with that caricature through satire. I also understood that Precy Cabigting, the housekeeper in Calpurnia, could never be a Mammy Stereotype because Black women and Filipina women are very different. I had an understanding, however, that many audience members would feel that the Black Mammy Stereotype and a modern Filipina caregiver character were the same. Confronting those two elements was a goal for me in Calpurnia because some people still feel that all racialized people suffer the same kind of racism, which is not true.

I created Precy Cabigting as a woman who is strong-minded, who experiences sexual desire, and who speaks back to the Gordon Family. Precy is a woman who negotiates her pay and she is paid very well. I felt responsible to the Filipino community, as someone who isn’t Filipino. I wanted Precy to sound authentic. I did this by seeking the help of many Filipina artists and Filipina family members and friends who are not theatre creators. They read the script and gave me feedback. I had family members who immigrated to Canada and worked as domestic workers, so I was able to gain insight from those who were close to me.

Meghan Swaby and Carolyn Fe. Photo by Dahlia Katz

As I write this, the world premiere of Calpurnia has come to a close. It was co-produced by Sulong Theatre and Nightwood Theatre. I directed it and it was performed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

As the writer, I knew that any time I felt that I was getting Precy’s voice “right” that was a clear sign that I was doing something wrong. I am not Filipina and no matter how much research I did or who my family members were, I knew that I needed to check in with those who lived that experience. So, throughout rehearsals I asked Carolyn Fe, the actress playing Precy, to see where my words could be more authentic.

Julie Gordon has the innocence and naiveté that is similar to Jean Louise (Scout) Finch’s. Both of these characters are growing up. Growing up was a major theme in Lee’s novel and it was a major theme for my play as well. We aren’t born with our politics. They are values that are born out of study and life experience. In Calpurnia, Julie grows into her politics. In most entertainment, Black women aren’t allowed to be naïve, to be messy or to grow into their political awareness. In the theatre, Black women are often seen as an educational tool, a plot device, angry without reason or the sassy best friend.

Scout is an upstart, she is moody and a fighter. She literally and repetitively beats up a boy in her schoolyard. Julie is similar. She is someone who has reached her limit. In Calpurnia, she takes a stand against her family’s ignorance, nepotism and internalized racism.

Lawrence Gordon and Atticus Finch have law in common. Lawrence is a retired judge and Atticus is a lawyer. I also mirrored their parenting styles – diplomatic, patient, loving, and affirming. It was important to me to have Lawrence be a warm hearted affectionate father because Black men are wonderful parents and I wanted to amplify this truth in the theatre. I wanted to show that there are Black men who sit down and tell their children that they love them, that ask them what they’ve learned and that would do anything for their kids – even if it meant sometimes doing too much. Atticus raised his children in a way that was radical in the 1930s. I think that a Black parent teaching their children awareness and giving them the freedom to make mistakes is very radical, especially considering the world we live in today.

Meghan Swaby and Andrew Moodie. Photo by Dahlia Katz

My goal was to create characters that audiences could recognize, situations that were familiar but edgy and a story that had them engage with intersectionality and allyship in a visual and complicated way. I wanted to display racialized labour and The Mammy Stereotype side by side in order to compare and contrast realities and truths behind both of those worlds.

The Mammy Stereotype was created by white people for the sake of nostalgia, to make them feel less guilty for enslaving women, and to romanticize their complicated relationships with Black domestic workers. In real life, many of these women were paid poorly, or not paid at all, harassed, abused and assaulted. The Mammy Stereotype in film, TV and literature allowed audiences and readers to engage with a false version of that truth. That caricature still exists in our entertainment.

In a review of the play, a critic couldn’t believe that Julie knew so little about her housekeeper Precy. The truth of the matter is that most of the people who employ housekeepers know little about them. But due to the Mammy Stereotype, we don’t believe that is possible. We believe that the hired staff talk about their lives and that they are members of the family. The truth is that they are not necessarily that close to their employers – be they adult or child. But the Mammy Stereotype enforces a perception that there is closeness. The Mammy Stereotype has created that perception so that we are more comfortable with the idea that these women are in our homes. If we believe they are family, we don’t have to face the discomfort and the truth of these relationships. The Mammy Stereotype was not created by Black People. It was created by White People.

I wanted to show the failures and successes of those who choose to support marginalized people through allyship.

I believe that it is important for allies to see what it looks like to make mistakes, and to get back up on their feet and try again. In the play, Christine boldly stands up to racism. Near the end of the play, we see her nervously defend freedom of speech and equality. In my experience, freedom of speech is one of the values that people hold on to tightly - even when it includes racial slurs. Freedom of speech is one of the themes that are addressed when studying To Kill a Mockingbird and so I felt that it was necessary to show this to audiences in Calpurnia.

Another failure of allyship revolves around believing (or not believing) Black people when they talk about being racialized. Over the years, I have discovered a pattern. When I spoke about being racialized, my experience was doubted. Oftentimes, I was told that “it wasn’t racism” and / or I was asked to define racism. Most usually, I found myself defining racism to the very person who was racist towards me, which was very painful. In Calpurnia, Christine stands up to racism. A few moments later, she displays racism. In that same review, that critic expressed that they didn’t believe that the character of Christine could behave that way.

It was important to me to show this very specific behaviour to audiences because that behaviour is real and true. It is hard to admit that one can believe in their whole heart that they are not racist, and yet display racist behaviour. I wasn’t surprised by this critic’s comment or inability to see the truth: that allies can help and cause hurt as they figure out their values, address their ignorance and confront their power and privilege.

Calpurnia addresses the fact that allyship is a journey, not a destination. The goal is to understand that one will never be perfect but to keep listening, despite ignorance, privilege and power.

The quote at the start of this piece by Young Jean Lee serves as an inspiration for me in my writing. I know that if I am feeling unsettled as I write then I have struck something that will challenge the audience. Calpurnia is a frank, honest and in-your-face play that unsettles the viewer as they laugh and cringe. As I wrote it, I definitely felt unsure, vulnerable and nervous.

I’m not interested in writing “the perfect script” or a clean smooth happy-go-lucky play. I want the actors who speak the lines to have an experience as they perform. I try to write in a way that will have them feeling that they don’t need to push a performance. I want them to feel that there is “no acting required” because the text is so believable. I want the audience to leave feeling that they’ve had a theatrical experience. I want them to laugh as they are confronted with truth. I want them to leave feeling perplexed and questioning their values and beliefs. I encourage change through storytelling, empathy and live art. I feel honoured to do this work and it is an absolute pleasure and privilege to serve my community this way.

Calpurnia by Audrey Dwyer had its world premiere production January 14 - February 04, 2018. The play was produced by Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre in Toronto, Canada.

Audrey Dwyer has over twenty years of experience in Acting, Directing, Playwriting, Teaching, Facilitating and Mentorship. She was also the Artistic Director of a theatre company for children. Recently, Audrey wrote and directed Calpurnia (Nightwood Theatre/Sulong Theatre.) Playwright’s Canada Press will publish Calpurnia in Fall 2019. She graduated from The National Theatre School Acting Department in 2001.

Tags: art, family, gender, politics, race

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