Thoughtful Comedy About West vs. East (Africa): Review of Social Studies

Family Hug.Cast: Emily Tognet as Sarah (left); Jane Wheeler as Val (back); Jaa Smith-Johnson as Deng (right) and Eleanor Noble as Jackie (center) Credit: Andrée Lanthier Family Hug.Cast: Emily Tognet as Sarah (left); Jane Wheeler as Val (back); Jaa Smith-Johnson as Deng (right) and Eleanor Noble as Jackie (center) Credit: Andrée Lanthier

What is it they say about art? It should make you feel something? Well, Social Studies by Canadian playwright Tricia Cooper, made me feel a lot of somethings. It was honest, laugh out loud funny, and genuinely thought provoking. Director Paul Van Dyck and the small cast brought a great story to life in a highly entertaining way.

Before even talking about the story, I need to give a big round of applause to Evita Karasek for her set design. The moment I walked into the theater, I felt as thought I was inside a family home complete with trophies, slumped school bag, photos, coats and a stocked kitchen. The set is like another character in this story. It was so believable and warm — bravo on your Centaur debut!

Social Studies brings together a delightful cast who paint the portrait of a very real family — freak outs, laughter, tension and all. Unique about this family is that just as the older daughter, Jackie, unexpectedly moves back home following a broken marriage, she learns that her peace and lovey mom (Val) has taken in a young Sudanese student (Deng) to live with them. The youngest, Sarah, develops a bit of a crush on Deng as she works on her high school social studies presentation about him and others of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The story is inspired by the playwright’s own experience moving back home with mom in Winnipeg and the challenges faced by the Sudanese boarder who lived with her family.

Emily Tognet was delightful as Sarah, her portrayal of a teenage girl was subtle and giggle-worthy. Jaa Smith-Johnson, as Deng, was charming and appropriately awkward- he communicated so much with his body language. Eleanor Noble (Jackie) played her part so well that I genuinely got upset with her at times. And Jane Wheeler brought Val to life hilariously as a new age mom doing her best to be a good person and the very real struggle to pass on her values to her kids.

This play is meant to ask a lot of questions without necessarily providing all the answers. It does a bang up job of juxtaposing questions of western privileged life with the examination of the horrific human experience of the children torn from their homes, killed and forced to fight in Sudan. It also takes a look at the experience of immigration to Canada and the struggle for refugees to feel safe and create new lives and communities. I like that the humour of the piece is so natural that it allows us to look at these very serious issues while simultaneously making us laugh and cry.

Would I recommend Social Studies? Absolutely. Go with a group, make plans for drinks afterwards and discuss.

Social Studies at The Centaur Theater (453 St. François-Xavier), November 1-30th. Show times and Dates HERE. $49.50