Controlled Damage

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Great Performances Overcome Well-Intended, but Misdirected Moments

Controlled Damage – a look at the life of Viola Desmond, written by Londoner Andrea Scott – is a play with solid foundational elements that is, at times, undermined by ancillary elements that are intended to amplify or contextualize the messages. Unfortunately, good intent can sometimes be compromised by questionable execution.

That said, the overall production is not only positive, but one that delves a little deeper into its themes than the standard Heritage Minute-style Canadian history that only scrapes the surface.

The story chronicles the life of Viola Desmond, a Halifax-born entrepreneur who taught, left Halifax to obtain schooling which she was not allowed in her home province, and eventually owned a hair salon and created products for the Black community. Many Canadians know her mainly for her 1946 arrest and subsequent posthumous free pardon (in 2010). Desmond, as the play shows, was an unintentional catalyst for racial change: she merely wanted to watch a movie closer to the screen due to her eyesight, and was not aware that the New Glasgow Theatre did not allow “coloured people” to sit on the main floor, as opposed to the balcony.

And while Desmond did not intend to be a civil rights icon in the manner of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, her nature, intelligence, and desire to have equal access to all life offered, drove her to become one through actions and deeds.

Beck Lloyd is the foundation upon which this entire production is built and she carries it throughout. We see her subjected to discrimination and racism in her role as a teacher, as she heads to Montreal and New York to obtain the schooling which she is not allowed in Nova Scotia, as a hairdresser owning her own salon, and, ultimately, on that fateful day when a malfunctioning car leads her to try to take in a movie in a small town en route from Halifax to Sydney. Lloyd’s Viola is clearly the star, but Stewart Adam McKensy’s Jack – her husband – helps to amplify her light. Whereas Viola is of the belief that any person, regardless of colour, should have equal access to the community of which they’re a part, McKensy’s Jack takes a more pragmatic approach, suggesting that they should be comfortable where they are, stay within their own community, and, most importantly, not create trouble.

The term troublemaker was frequently applied to Viola throughout the play, but the reality is – as she says repeatedly – “I did nothing wrong.”

Based on these performances alone, the production is solid and the writing supports a comprehensive narrative. But Controlled Damage frustratingly just scratches the surface of some key themes – the conflict between the experiences and beliefs of a multi-racial Viola who can “pass” versus those who are Black; the difference of experience between light-skinned and darker-skinned people; and Viola’s very chosen profession – a hairdresser who also creates products for women of colour – and what that means to the community at large when natural Black hair is seen as unclean or less professional. Desmond, the eventual-yet-unintentional champion for racial equality, is challenged by a student to explain why making Black hair more white is seen as better. There’s also a wonderful session between three men in the community who debate the merits of Viola’s actions, using their personal experiences as the lens through which their perspectives are viewed. But with a production clocking in at a tightly packed two hours, there seemingly was little time to explore these topics in more depth.

Overall, while the principals were consistently strong, some of the ancillary elements failed to consistently deliver.

The supporting cast, largely, interacted in the manner of a Greek Chorus – including donning the traditional masks at times. And while some of their transitional efforts and informational moments were excellent (a scene carrying Viola comes to mind, as do some of the musical interludes whether they be fiddle-based [Dominique LeBlanc stood out] or choral [with some powerful gospel-style presentations]) others missed the mark – particularly a stage-sweeping transition that fell flat.

The Chorus itself was oddly insinuated throughout the play. Though often intended to reflect Viola’s inner feelings and emotions, too often they just felt out of place. This was primarily noticed during the first act, but may have been most egregiously felt in the second act during two key scenes – one, where a solo chorus member remained on the stage; and during a two person discussion where their presence was awkward and detracted from the dialogue.

This actually was a recurring theme – ancillary elements undermining the primary action. The stage was set up with a forced perspective box, representing the rooms in which the production took place, whether that be the Desmonds’ home, a beauty salon, or various outdoor environments. Just outside of that frame stood a three-panel video screen that was used to add images, videos, and text to contextualize the story points. In one case, it served as a character, with the judge who finds Desmond guilty of tax evasion (the charge that Desmond faced due to the fact that the balcony seat for which she paid was cheaper than the floor-level seat – and that disparity caused her to not pay a one-cent additional tax).

In some cases, it worked, helping those less familiar with the story to understand dates and location. It other cases, it didn’t. Presented as an episodic retelling of her life, every scene was introduced with a title – akin to the chapters of a book. It was largely unnecessary and, in one case, oddly distracting (“the woman who lived” as a title which hearkened back to contemporary Harry Potter-esque chaptering). In fact, that initial scene – where Desmond is presented as a miraculous survivor of the Halifax Explosion in December 1917 – runs counter to the remainder of the play. It sets her up as predestined for greatness – a mythological character who was ordained by the universe to be special – which conflicts with Desmond’s own belief that she is just an ordinary person, trying to enjoy a normal life, and did nothing wrong. Her greatness comes from her tenacity, her belief in equality, and her eventual resolve – at great personal cost – to fight an injustice, as the everywoman, an inspirational figure to which every person could – and should – aspire. But this additional mythological layer adds an element that creates a barrier.

There’s also a wonderful moment where the faces, names, and accomplishments of prominent Black Canadians are played along the screens. But it comes at an awkward part of the production, not naturally flowing with the narrative, but existing separately from it.

All of the aforementioned elements are presented with the best of intent and could work. But their positioning, whether it be through timing, awkwardness, or overuse, show that the execution could be refined to increase their individual impact.

Overall, Controlled Damage is a welcome addition to the Grand stage. There are some outstanding individual performances, both acting-wise and musically. And, despite some well-intended but misdirected elements, it succeeds in sharing the story of an incredible Canadian.