I’ll join the chorus of voices calling Kanika Ambrose’s our place a new Canadian classic: it is.
Ambrose deftly navigates the sexual politics of Canadian immigration, the gendered nature of poverty, the splendour of female friendship. Two hours melt away as we fall in love with Andrea and Niesha, two newcomers to Canada from the Caribbean with a friendship as touching as it is funny. Ambrose peels back the layers of a broken immigration system, showcasing its implicit grime, its capacity to hurt those at the bottom of the food chain, and she does so with a startling blend of clarity and humour.
Ambrose’s critique stings a little more right now: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is experiencing a major backlog at the moment, to which I can personally attest. As well, Ambrose dives into the racial implications of undocumented status in Canada — the danger especially present for Black women in search of new lives here under constant threat of deportation. Niesha contemplates marriage as a means to immigration legitimacy; Andrea looks elsewhere. Much of the play unfolds in Scarborough, in basement bachelor apartments and behind the counter of the Jerk Pork Castle, where Andrea and Niesha work for cash. Scarborough is perhaps a character in the play itself, ever-present and uniquely vibrant.
Ambrose isn’t alone in her brilliance, evidenced in the play by dynamic pacing and meticulous character development, shepherded to life by director Sabryn Rock. One hell of a team has come together to animate Andrea and Niesha’s journeys. Let’s start with those characters themselves, played luminously by Virgilia Griffith and Sophia Walker. Griffith as boisterous Andrea and Walker as the more sensible Niesha balance each other with grace and style, and the bestie chemistry is beyond charming. The men of our place, suitors, for better or worse, to the two women, get less stage time. But Tremaine Nelson and Pablo Ogunlesi do the most with it, pulling our heartstrings and misdirecting our gaze with expert chops — by the end of the play our perception of these men in the lives of Andrea and Niesha completely flips.
The whole play, too, is performed in dialect — one that Ambrose invented in order to suggest Caribbean heritage without specifying one particular country of origin. In this way, Niesha and Andrea could be from anywhere – and their stories could apply to any number of women. The cast, coached by Alicia Richardson, executes the dialect well, and there’s a screen with surtitles for (some) of the audience to reference if they need it.
Rock has eked out every possible nuance from her cast, and the result is a play which feels rich and complete despite some frustrating design and logistical choices. Audiences are seated on three sides of the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace, an efficient enough configuration. But beware: our place is something of an exercise in neck-craning if you’re not sitting in TPM’s usual raised area for audiences. From my seat, I could see neither the surtitles nor the scenes set in a Niagara hotel room (for reasons I’ll avoid detailing due to spoilerage). Sim Suzer’s set and costumes are great in isolation — they’re just not configured in a way that’s accessible to 100 per cent of the seats in the theatre.
our place is a long time coming, following a number of COVID delays: the play is an honest, no-holds-barred examination of who exactly is feeling the pinch of Canada’s besieged immigration policy. Ambrose’s opus is a dive into Black joy and Black grief; friendship and romantic love; immigration and forced assimilation. This is a courageous play with bite and occasional snarl, and it could not be more timely. It’s clear that Our Place deserves a long life beyond this thrilling Cahoots/TPM co-production — and that Kanika Ambrose’s writing is destined to appear on more stages and screens for years to come.
our place runs November 18 through December 3, 2022 at Theatre Passe Muraille.