What do residents of comfortable first-world countries do when confronted with a massive and tragic refugee crisis? If my Facebook feed is any indication, they use it as an opportunity for posturing. One strain of internet argumentation rants and raves about the irreparable damage that bringing in a relatively minuscule number of refugees will do to our country's social fabric, because Canada has obviously never allowed any foreigners in before. As loathsome and racist as this line of reasoning is, there is something no less annoying about people who appear to only post about the world's catastrophic events in order to make sure that everyone knows what good and caring people they are. Can we ever truly understand the unimaginable horrors of war and genocide? And how can we help?
Trish Cooper's new play Social Studies, playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until December 5th, both dissects and celebrates our attempts to do good. Val (Susinn McFarlen) is the kind of hippy-dippy mom who thinks that everyone who has cancer learns a valuable lesson from it. She turns saying Grace into a lecture about Western privilege and adopts a South Sudanese Lost Boy named Deng (Richie Diggs). His arrival to her family home coincides with the return of Val's oldest daughter Jackie (Erin Moon), who is recovering from the dissolution of her marriage and is crestfallen to find a stranger in her childhood bedroom. The family's younger daughter Sarah (Lili Beaudoin) is much more enthusiastic about Deng's presence, possibly because her interest in Deng veers from the sociological (her social studies project about the Lost Boys functions as the play's framing device) to the romantic.
Social Studies has a long running time, and most of its conflict only really gets going after the intermission. Yet the time we spend with this makeshift Winnipeg family pays off, as it gives the script the space to create fully realized and three-dimensional characters. Val slowly reveals the spine behind the drum circles, and shows herself to be a much more attentive mother than her daughters give her credit for. Sarah finds her role as the family's speaker of uncomfortable truths, culminating in a hilarious and uncomfortable comic set piece when she comes home drunk and discloses what all the family members have been saying behind each other's backs.
Beaudoin's comic timing is consistently excellent, and she has strong chemistry with Moon. The script gets great mileage from contrasting Jackie's entitlement and materialism with her mom's altruism, and Jackie vocalizes unjust suspicions about Deng and scrutinizes him for holes in his story. But Moon's committed performance makes the possibly unsympathetic character of Jackie completely believable and even loveable. Equally excellent is Richie Diggs, who fully inhabits the character of Deng. His entire body language transforms from ebullient and grateful at the play's start to agonized as he realizes that his community's tragedies have followed him to Canada. This transformation is breathtaking to behold.
First world problems, as one of history's greatest hashtags has it, lack dignity. And while moving to Winnipeg may sound appealing at first, it has never solved anyone's problems. Social Studies is at heart a sweet and funny look at the importance of empathy, with a heartwarming finish that may leave your eyes a little damp (just blame it on the rain). While it in no way sugarcoats the difficulty of sponsoring refugees, it makes a stirring case for the importance of doing so. Go see it, and then post about it on Facebook so all your friends know to see it too.
Social Studies is playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until December 5. Tickets and showtimes here.