Thursday 24 April 2014

Watching Glory Die is a grief poem & elegy

Quicky overview :  Playwright Judith Thompson's 75-minute one-woman show Watching Glory Die at The Cultch through May 3rd is a quiet poem of a play that moves viewers' hearts and minds through nuance, shade and subtle character colours. Directed by Ken Gass, it is not screed, sermon nor angry tirade against the bureau known as Correctional Services Canada (CSC) that it condemns. Thompson plays three interconnected women all linked by the futility and victimhood of their circumstances : a teen prisoner fashioned after Ashley Smith who died in prison by ligature suicide; her helpless adoptive mom on the sidelines; and the teen's primary jailer who demonstrates a soupcon of empathy for her but is mostly a cynical "screw" who takes the system's code of revenge against its captives as a given. Thompson's script is clear : Ashley Smith deserved a huddle of mental health folks wrapping their arms around her in loving embrace to help her grow. Not the prison torture she got.

Real-life backdrop :  The death of 19-year-old Ashley Smith on October 26, 2007 at Ontario's Grand Valley Institution was an event that shook Canada viscerally. Particularly once it was learned that Ashley had been in various jails continuously since age 14, most of it in solitary confinement. In fact, CP reports that Ashley was trussed up and bounced around 17 times among nine institutions across five provinces in just one year, her last. But worst of all was this revelation : despite being on suicide-watch, her CSC guards had been instructed to not enter her cell under any circumstances unless she stopped breathing. Although witnessing her suicide occurring directly and personally in front of them, only when Ashley actually stopped breathing 3/4 of an hour later did the six guards watching go "assist" her : nought to do but cut the ligature from her blue-black head and cover her in a shroud. Like soldiers across the ages, they were "just following orders" lest they lose their jobs in a job-poor market.

It took the elapse of five years for a 5-woman jury to hear from some 80 witnesses over 11 months before they concluded Ashley's death was what it in fact it had been -- a homicide --  i.e. a preventable death occasioned by an act or an omission by some other(s). Among the jury's 104 recommendations, a particular one is like a needle that punctures the eye : "Prison staff at all levels are to be personally responsible for everyone's right to life."  Really? Does this truly need to be spelt out? In Canada-the-Good? In the 21st century? 

It could be that Ashley had an active personality disorder. Or maybe just deficient DNA. Or she may have suffered the neurosis known in DSM-IV as oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) that is pretty close to self-explanatory. From hucking crabapples at a postie at 14 to telling her guards to eff-off constantly to nudging them in the ribs when she was just funnin' -- Ashley's original six months sentence in a juvie remand facility turned into 2,239 days being "tacked on" to her original sentence by dint of 500 prison administrative penalty charges -- usually 60 additional days' incarceration for each charge -- arising from the 800 incident reports filed against her. 

To restrain her, teen-age Ashley was pepper-sprayed, straight-jacketed, Taser'd and otherwise physically subdued. No question : Thompson's sympathetic exploration of the Ashley Smith story demonstrates how powerful are the forces in society that demand conformity. Particularly when they act outside the focus of public eye.

The show :  Thompson wears one primary outfit for all three characters -- a drab prisoner's dress that is highlighted by a guard's jacket and clogs when playing jailer Gail; a shawl and sandals when playing the Mom Rosellen; barefooted when playing Glory. But it is Thompson's ability to create different voices that gives the play its layered poetic moods : Fargo-ish Frances McDormond when Gail the guard; Nova Scotian hobby farmer when Mom; ironic in-your-face push-back ego when Glory.

Were this expository drama, we would expect tantrum rages from Glory. They never come. Mom would be blustery indignance. She seldom goes there. Jail-guard Gail would be officious sarcasm. She is flatly matter-of-fact-ish instead.

The action shifts from Glory's solitary confinement cell to the prisoners' catwalks to Mom's kitchen. Thompson cycles through these planes one-by-one as her characters act out their sad tales of how hopeless the revenge / conformity / power-centric penal system in Canada is, even (especially?) for wee teens -- what Gail characterizes "an un-wipe-able stain" of suppression and grief. 

Slight wonder surfaces : Mom Rosellen claims she will "Howl!" to free her daughter. But the script reveals no evidence that she in fact does so with her MLA or MP or the media. Apparently it occurred only in her own heart and head. Still Mom did try, repeatedly and desperately, to visit her daughter just to discover she'd once again been shuffled to a different prison somewhere else in the land. Not being judgmental, but I just can't help but wonder how more aggressive whistle-blowing and advocacy might have helped out here in the actual Ashley Smith scenario. Perhaps that's part of Judith Thompson's message : personal agency at this time was likely quite futile in the CSC closed-door universe no one was paying attention to.

Production values :  The spare set, the lighting both harsh and muted, the sound-&-visual projection designs* join the intimate Cultch historic stage to contribute to Thompson's evocative script and her understated deliverance that belies her outrage as a citizen and artist at what Ashley Smith suffered at the hands of her "guardians". 

Most poignant pieces :  Glory blames her birth-mom for her basic plight as a rebellious and bellicose teen. She imagines birth-mom as a crocodile from the swamp : "She is in the swamp, the swamp you don't see and I don't see but I feel under me, moving, wet and waiting. Can you smell it? I can smell it now, all the time. Smells like dead mice and dog food and a baking cake." [Were any child of mine to conjure such imagery, I would hope the system would steer them toward mental health providers -- not send them, criminally, to the folks who listen poorly and talk loudly with handcuffs and truncheons and Tasers.] Looking up at the omnipresent cell CCTV, Glory hisses : "I'll report you to God and my crocodile!" 

Gail enjoys a moment of insight when she observes that all the jailers "...have a sickness -- they treated her reputation, not her."  

Glory and her friend Renee who's also in solitary, one cell over, talk through the walls and share stories and poetry. Glory's Tuesday poem goes :

I am the girl
In your storybook swirl
On Friday it was a fiery wreck
And now I have 
A lovely green ribbon
Around my neck --
Can you guess why?

Rosellen's end-game soliloquy : "Every child born is born to all of us. We are all responsible. These things go on in the shadows, the dark and the wings, and we don't even know until they affect us in some way. And when we see these things we are astonished!"

For her part, playwright Thompson (a member of the Order of Canada and twice recipient of the Governor General's award for playwriting**) told TorSun interviewer Colin Perkel for Canadian Press this week that she was "...absolutely haunted and devastated by what happened to [Ashley]. When there's something I don't understand and I'm outraged, the only way I can express it is through writing a play. I was compelled to address the horror that Ashley Smith endured. I owe it to Ashley. I want to give her what I can."

The play as poetry, poetry as play. Here is what Irish poet icon Dylan Thomas once offered up that applies both to Thompson's original script and to her acting in a dynamic and utterly engaging performance :

"A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the things around him."

Who for :  Judith Thompson has made an indelible "contribution to reality" about Canada's treatment of teens in the penal system, about the system's unilateral "justice" decisions, about dark-side secret ops by institutions we as taxpayers fund and are morally responsible for. Watching Glory Die almost guarantees CSC can never be the same again. WGD is painful but accessible. It will surely open every viewer's mind-&-heart. And that is the stuff of good poetry and good play-writing both.  

* Astrid Janson, Set and Costume Designer
   Andre du Toit, Lighting Designer/Producer
   Debashis Sinha, Sound Designer
   Cameron Davis, Projection Designer

** G.G. awards for White Biting Dog (1985) and a collection The Other Side of the Dark (1989)

This Canadian Rep Theatre production moves from The Cultch to Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre, premiering May 17, runs to June 1st. 


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