Review: Despite strong performances, The West Woods needs more fire this time to elevate its portrayal of racism

A scene from The West Woods. Photo: Ashley Pettipas

Racism not only divides people from each other, it divides its victims from themselves. Internalizing the hatred directed their way, the targets of racism wind up ashamed and feeling they deserve no more than what they have. Those deep internal conflicts and the struggle to overcome them underpin The West Woods by Nova Scotia playwright Tara Reddick. An internal divide, unbridged, also makes the drama less than it could be.

Set in Reddick’s home province in the 1960s, the play revolves around an African-Canadian family living under one roof in a spot called The West Woods. Family matriarch Betty (Mariah Inger), now retired but still scrappy, spent years cleaning white people’s houses and squirreling away her earnings to buy her own home, an enduring source of pride and security for her.

Her jaded adult daughter Pearlie (Alexandra Laferrière in a nuanced performance), who also cleans white folks’ homes, lives with Betty, along with her charming but employment-challenged husband Alfie (Nathan D. Simmons) and the couple’s fiercely independent teenaged daughter Wanda (the compelling Micha Cromwell).

The already strained family relationships – Betty has little use for her flighty son-in-law; Pearlie and Wanda clash instinctively; and Alfie and Pearlie are having marital issues – come under greater pressure when Wanda gets turfed from school after getting into a fight over a racial slur and Alfie loses yet another job.

The situation is complicated when members of the Black United Front, a Black Panthers-style organization, come to town to rally people against racial injustice following the shameful razing of the African-Canadian community of Africville just outside Halifax by that city’s government. Alfie and Wanda, allies by temperament and interests, sign on to the Front’s ideology, but Betty and Pearlie, fearful of losing what they have, oppose any involvement with a group bent on upsetting the racial status quo. “We just need to mind our own business,” says Pearlie, while her husband remonstrates, “That’s the problem: We don’t speak our mind enough.”

That family schism (which grows as the play progresses) serves as a microcosm of the battle between conservative and progressive forces within the larger black community. And that’s the problem with The West Woods: the play, directed here by Emmy Alcorn, can’t decide if it wants to be a domestic drama or an allegory for larger issues. Reddick does offer a credible if too-often predictable family situation and she avoids the turgid expository writing that can characterize allegory. But her play never commits and, so, fails to gain real traction. You’re interested in what’s happening, but there are few lurches of the heart, few moments of the deep anger or joy or sorrow that theatre can elicit in us. Despite hard work by the performers, the stakes are just too low for the show to really challenge us.

This lack of commitment appears in maddening ways. For instance, Alfie’s a mechanic and an outdoorsy guy, but with that sleek new lumber jacket and shiny rubber boots he looks more like a suburban dad who’s just gone to Mark’s Work Warehouse.

We learn that Pearlie had a chance to make it as a singer but never cashed in on the opportunity. It’s a potentially evocative insight into her and the plight of her larger community, but Reddick never really develops this detail of a life in abeyance.

That sense of frustrated lives hemmed in by racism smoulders all the way through The West Woods. If only Reddick had set the trees ablaze.

The West Woods is a Mulgrave Road Theatre (Guysborough, N.S.) production. It was reviewed Friday. At Arts Court Theatre until July 9. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.