By: Angela Guardiani
Some months ago, I saw a play that will remain nameless. It dealt with profound, emotional subject matter – sexual slavery during wartime. It was intense and graphic and disturbing. The writing was uneven, flowery and artificial in some parts and exposition-heavy in others. The directorial treatment wavered between mawkish symbolism and misery porn, lavishing attention on women's tortured bodies. And this story, meant to be about women, somehow managed to give more time to the voices of men – the women's abusers and loved ones. It was a disappointing evening. Maybe it just can't be done, I thought to myself. Maybe this kind of story is so powerful, so disturbing, that it just can't be made into good theatre.
The subject matter is the same; Lela & Co. is a play about sex trafficking. It tells a harrowing story and it doesn't sugarcoat the realities of war. But it is so much more than that. It's the story of Lela, her childhood, her struggle, her resistance and resilience. It's a story of war, those who suffer, those who profit, and those who try to help. It's a production that educates, yes, but never at the expense of character. Most of all, it proves that in the hands of skilled writers, performers, and crew, even a story as painful as this one can be a thing of beauty.
Lela & Co. is very nearly a one-woman show. The lights go down, there's an eerie flash, like lightning, and a woman's body clad in a thin white nightgown is stretched out on a platform in the middle of the stage. This is theatre in the round, and the audience is drawn into the voyeurism from the very beginning. It's uncomfortable for a moment – but then the lights go up, warm like sunshine, and Lela smiles at us, and begins to chat. She tells us of her childhood, her home in the mountains, and it's so honest and simple and beautiful that you want to cry. And the story unfolds, without an intermission, Lela's narrative coming straight from her mouth, her frank gaze reaching out to the audience. Jenna Harris plays Lela as alive to her very fingertips, brimming with feeling, yearning for her story to be told fully and to be heard. (Full disclosure: I know Jenna, and she is as luminous in real life as she is on stage.)
The flow of Lela's story is punctuated by ugly, discordant interruptions. Her father jumps in to her childhood memories to bemoan loudly and melodramatically over the ingratitude of his youngest child (but it's clear that there's affection between them). The interruptions take on a more sinister cast when we meet Lela's slimy, opportunistic brother-in-law and become downright horrifying when we meet the man who will become Lela's husband, jailer, abuser, and pimp. They're all played by Graham Cuthbertson, who does a fine job of making each of these men immediately distinct. The interruptions are characteristic – they show the impatience and curtness of her husband, for example – but they're also symbolic, showing how the stories of victims get brutally twisted or silenced by those who hold power. “We met at a restaurant in the square,” begins Lela, telling us how she was introduced to her abuser. “On the beach,” he immediately corrects. And nothing, not her memories, not her insistence, not her arguments, can change his mind.
The scenes that show Lela's captivity and abuse are hard-hitting but they're not graphic, and they're played with an eye to emotional truth rather than being explicitly sexual. Cutherbertson strides around the stage heavily, wearing military-style boots, and the audience cringes at how close his footfalls come to Harris' bare feet. And just when the play becomes almost too uncomfortable, the intensity of suffering almost too painful to bear, there's a touch of relief. I won't say that this play has a happy ending – can there be such a thing after such trauma? - but there is closure, and a discomfiting sense of responsibility.
Lela & Co. is not easy theatre – it's no musical or comedy revue. But it's good. It's very, very good.
Photos by Dahlia Katz
Lela & Co. is a co-production of Discord & Din Theatre and Seventh Stage Productions and plays until October 8 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West. Tickets are $15-$30 (and PWYC on Sunday, October 8) and are available at theatrecentre.org or at the box office. Performance are followed by a talkback with the cast, crew, and a representative from an anti-trafficking organization.