In a rusting borderland shanty town, somewhere in Zimbabwe (though the country is never named), two girls play a pat-a-cake game then learn how to bust some moves. It comes as something of a shock when we realize that this isn’t a case of wholesome skylarking in the sun, but a means of teaching a barely pubescent innocent the rules of selling herself for a can of gasoline from the truckers who constantly cross the border.
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s Governor General Award-nominated, Dora Mavor Moore-prizewinning play, Gas Girls, is getting its Montreal debut courtesy of Black Theatre Workshop. It can’t help but collar your attention with its excruciatingly bleak premise, one depressingly drawn from real life. St. Bernard could so easily have paraded a litany of horrors, and though there are certainly some degrading aspects of this putrid business, she’s more concerned with the hopes and humanity which bind the three main characters – a tall order considering one of these is a young hustler pimping out his little sister to get his hands on that precious fuel. There’s also the endless succession of johns, all played, with a combination of ravenous lust, self-loathing neediness and aggressive spite, by Chimwemwe Miller under the generic name of Mr. Man.
Virgilia Griffith and Alexandra Laferrière are marvellously affecting as, respectively, the worldly wise Gigi and the naive but recklessly game Lola. Hip-hop artist Jimmy Salami also handles himself impressively in this his theatrical debut, finding enough swagger and charm in the hustling Chickn to suggest that under the moral squalor of his calling is someone who, otherwise, might have been a gently affable regular guy.
Much of the play consists of Gigi and Lola killing time between tricks and dreaming about an idyllic “some day” which, like Godot, clearly isn’t about to turn up any time soon. Co-directors Quincy Armorer and Liz Valdez nicely evoke the loose-limbed banter of this downtime, finding in it a bittersweet humour and poignancy.
Sometimes, though, there’s a frustrating lack of clarity, partly because of awkward staging, partly because of the invented patois which St. Bernard has created to suggest the universality of the girls’ plight. There’s some off-stage plotting at the beach involving a gun that quite eluded me, and at times it wasn’t clear whether the production was aiming for surreal flights of fancy or whether it was all meant to be grounded in the characters’ reality. These distractions aside, the considerable strength of the play lies in the gut-punch of its central premise and the humanizing of its inhuman implications by four powerfully committed performances.
Gas Girls is currently playing at the Segal Centre Studio until Nov. 8.
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.