Theatre review: Us and Them – performance takes back seat to a call for social change

Headline Theatre’s Us And Them is not your typical theatrical production, as much of its power comes from what happens after the curtain falls.

For the first three-quarters of an hour, six actors tell an intertwining series of stories that touch on issues of racism, gender, class and even alcoholism.  There is little in the script that is new, with clichéd stories about an out-of-work aboriginal man with a drinking problem, the recent immigrant who is just as intolerant as she claims those around here are, and an employer who doesn’t give a candidate a second glance because of the colour of his skin.  One bright light is the exploration of a transgendered man’s quest for acceptance but it too gets mired in clichés of self-loathing and victimization.

As the backdrop to the storyline is the idea that the Stanley Cup riot is somehow a result of these issues.   “It is about more than just hockey” is written on the wall of messages that appeared outside The Bay downtown early in the piece and ends with “This city has no soul” at the end.  In between we are presented with video images of other riots around the world interspersed through the show.  Unfortunately the impact of these images are lessened as we’re not always sure what we are watching; co-director David Diamond is even forced to make special mention of this fact, reminding us that not all the riot footage we saw was from Vancouver.  I also couldn’t help but think that the images we are seeing around the world from the various “occupy” demonstrations might have more relevance here than the Stanley Cup riot.

Fighting to bring the stories to life are the six actors that appear to have little or no theatrical training or experience.  Much like the stories being told, the actors find little depth in what they are doing.  The one exception here is Brandy McCallum who manages to breathe life into Ashley, the young aboriginal woman caught between her cultural identity and the world she finds herself in now.

A scene from the Headlines Theatre production of Us and Them.
A scene from the Headlines Theatre production of Us and Them.  Photo by David Cooper.

The scripted portion of this piece of social theatre is only part of the experience here and, at least on the afternoon we saw a performance, accounted for less than half of the total 2+ hour runtime.  The bulk of what Headline Theatre calls its “theatre for the living” comes from the dialogue that ensues after the performance.  Here co-director David Diamond steps into the role of facilitator, engaging with the audience to further explore the issues presented in the play.  Replaying the final scene, Diamond invites audience members to stop the action at any time and take the place of one of the actors in an attempt to perhaps changing the outcome we have already witnessed.  Audience members are also permitted to move within the timeline of the story to see how they might influence the outcome of future scenes by making changes to how situations are handled.

Diamond is a master facilitator, putting the audience at ease and making it a safe place for participation.  This is no easy feat as most audiences will not expect, and potentially resist, this interactive portion of the show.  With some encouragement, four members of our audience participated in the exercise.  While each approached the task differently, the outcome was essentially the same, with each audience member diffusing or potentially lessening the impact of the words and actions within the story.  The strongest moment of the show came in an emotional comment from an audience member of visible minority who recognized her own reality presented on stage.

Us and Them may not be life changing, but it does have a certain power that may spark dialogue and thought.  As theatre for social change I suppose that is the ultimate goal, I just wished the theatricality had also scored a point or two.

3 Out of 5 Stars Us and Them

Co-directed by David Damond and Kavin Finnan.  A Headlines Theatre production.  On stage at The Cultch through November 12, 2011.  Visit for tickets and information.

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