By: Joe Kornelsen
It’s not often you get to see a play that is set half a block from where you live. So I was looking forward to seeing Sargent and Victor & Me, the latest offering from Theatre Projects Manitoba. The play is billed as “a unique perspective on the strengths and challenges of [a] troubled area,” so I was expecting to see a show that challenged common stereotypes of the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, this play offers no strengths, nor does it present a unique perspective. It only reinforces negative stereotypes about the West End that already exist.
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Sargent and Victor & Me, written and performed by Debbie Patterson and directed by Arne McPherson, is a one-woman show set in a food bank in the First Lutheran Church on Victor Street. Patterson plays all eight characters, seven of whom are based on interviews of people in the West End. The central character, a food bank volunteer named Gillian, is based loosely on Patterson herself. Gillian is coming to terms with the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that the playwright herself has. This storyline runs parallel to the character’s struggle to understand the West End, as she interacts with the other characters, who illustrate life in a crime-plagued neighbourhood. The story compares the struggles of the West End to the struggles of MS. The implication is that the West End has a terminal illness.
Patterson delivers a powerful narrative about the realities of living with a terminal disease. However, her subplot about constant violence and helplessness in the West End seems unnecessary to the telling of her personal story. The play is flawed because the metaphor isn’t correct, and to build the metaphor, Patterson seems to rely on the most sensational news headlines about this neighbourhood.
Patterson’s claim to credibility is that she conducted interviews with people in the area. I’m not sure if it was the questions she asked, the interviews she decided to use or the people she interviewed that gave her the image she presents, but it is not the neighbourhood I am familiar with. In fact, despite the interviews that she did, the stories and characters in this play fit pretty closely with assumptions people living outside the West End already have.
The play seems designed to make the audience feel affirmed in their assumptions. Familiar-sounding newscasts about shootings near Sargent and Victor are played five times during the play. The characters living in the neighbourhood are either racist, experiencing only hardship or are helpless – they serve as decaying neighbourhood clichés that reinforce the image outsiders expect.
The ethnic diversity of the neighbourhood was largely ignored except for when it was used as a source of conflict. In the play we hear about a Jamaican pimp, an Egyptian john, a hypothetical Rwandan servant boy, and the racist neighbour goes on a tangent about how Filipinos are good and Aboriginals are bad.
We all know that we live in a world with racism and that in order for art to properly tackle problems like racism it must be able to present people that make us uncomfortable. The problem with the overt racism in this play is that it is never challenged by anyone. Undoubtedly, Patterson knows that we don’t need a character to actually judge it for us; we, the audience, know how to react to the kind of overt racism we see in the play. However, because the play is being presented to many people outside of the West End (as far away as Reykjavik), the lack of any character in the West End who challenges racism causes the viewer to judge the whole neighbourhood as racist. Without that character, the audience can only assume that the neighbourhood is incapable of understanding and tackling its own problems.
Helplessness is another theme in the play. The two aboriginal characters are both kids—one is about 10 and the other is 15. The 10-year-old, Gracie, is a cute kid that likes to help out but she gets only a few lines. A large part of the show goes to Theresa, the 15-year-old, who lives through one horrible experience after another in the West End. Theresa and Gillian’s stories end at the food bank together—Theresa is there to receive food and Gillian is there to serve it. Unlike the other characters, Theresa is presented with little or no agency —she is portrayed solely as a victim, finally winding up at a church food bank staffed by seemingly exclusively white outsiders. To portray the only non-white characters as exclusively helpless is extremely problematic. It adds insult to injury when the neighbourhood being presented has one of the largest communities of urban aboriginal people in Canada.
Finally, the major assumption of this play is that the neighbourhood is being over-run by crime and that it’s getting worse. In fact, crime in the West End has fallen in nine of the last 10 years.
To be clear, the West End does have its struggles. To the extent that the interviews are faithfully presented, the stories are as worthy as any to be told. Given my experience, however, this is a narrow picture of a diverse Winnipeg neighbourhood. There are many things that stand out for me when I think of times my neighbours and I came together, from sharing tools, to the time my neighbour called to warn me about the parking police, to the time the neighbours gathered around to help when my cat was hit by a car. Community members are interacting with each other in positive ways all the time. These kinds of humanizing stories were completely absent in Sargent and Victor & Me. The interviewees might also have experienced stories like these, but those stories were not part of this play.
The West End is a place where people live and work. Unlike the rest of Winnipeg, the stories I hear on the news about the West End are a very small part of what I know about the neighbourhood. Sargent and Victor & Me presents a place that I don’t recognize: a kind of place people imagine exists when they read the headlines. But when I go outside, I see my neighbours, I see people taking care of their yards, and I see kids walking to school. I see a real neighbourhood.
Joe Kornelsen lives, works and goes to school in the West End.