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Friday, June 21, 2024

Theatre review: Controlled Damage is more than just a history lesson

Theatricality elevates this biography about civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond

Andrea Scott’s new play Controlled Damage, currently receiving its world premiere at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, may be about Canadian civil rights trailblazer Viola Desmond. But thanks to some inventive staging, it is so much more than a simple history lesson.

On November 8, 1946, Black Nova Scotian Viola Desmond walked into a New Glasgow movie theatre. Unaware the theatre was segregated, Viola took a seat on the main floor instead of the balcony where Black patrons were expected to sit. She was eventually arrested and dragged out of the theatre.

Bolstered by support from her community, Viola would eventually challenge the charges brought against her to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court. Her stand against injustice would galvanize Nova Scotia’s Black community and help inspire Canada’s civil rights movement.

But while Scott’s play most definitely deals in the specifics of Viola’s act of defiance, she is much more than merely the face of the Canadian ten-dollar bill. By humanizing her story, Scott highlights the very personal repercussions of Viola’s actions and vividly illustrates the systemic racism in Canada at the time. It also becomes a reminder of where we have come as a nation, but more importantly, it is a powerful reminder of just how far we have yet to go.

Much of Viola’s story is told through a traditional narrative as it chronicled her life just before her arrest through to her untimely death in 1965. While a fascinating history lesson, the theatricality the playwright and director Nigel Shawn Williams have infused inside the story elevates Controlled Damage beyond a typical bio-play.

A case in point is this production’s terrific ensemble, which not only plays the various characters to help tell Viola’s story but also becomes a de facto Greek chorus.

Called upon to witness, highlight the action, and provide musical interludes, their most impactful scenes come from the portrayal of the movie patrons present when Viola was dragged from the theatre. With the ensemble wearing white masks, the scene is a startling visual metaphor heightened by director Williams’s affecting staging. In another particularly moving scene, a mask is removed, and a secret is revealed.

In another inspired choice, the ensemble is dressed in modern clothes from costume designer Brandon Kleiman. It is in stark contrast to Viola’s beautiful era-specific clothing, becoming another metaphor, reminding us that while what we are watching is historical, its implications transcend time.

Members of the ensemble in the Neptune Theatre and b current production of Controlled Damage. Photo by Stoo Metz.
Members of the ensemble in the Neptune Theatre and b current production of Controlled Damage. Photo by Stoo Metz.

As Viola Desmond, Halifax actor Deborah Castrilli gives a tremendous performance. Virtually on stage for the show’s two-hour run time, her portrayal has an understated strength.

Doing double-duty as an ensemble member and Viola’s husband, Ryan Allen, is a towering presence, even though he would eventually crumble under the weight of Viola’s decision to challenge her arrest.

Brandon Kleiman’s wonderfully evocative wooden benches are reminiscent of a church, which figure prominently in Viola’s story. The exploding and slightly angled walls touch on the notion of history and mirror our modern discomfort with what we see on stage.

Projection designer Nick Bottomley provides some witty surtitles. And in a particularly resonant moment, the faces and names of Black Canadians of note are projected against Kleiman’s set while the ensemble sings.

Underscoring the potential of live theatre, layers of Controlled Damage are missing from other mediums. While the history lesson is reason enough to see it, these additional layers make it more compelling.

With the run at Neptune Theatre officially sold out, one only hopes it gets a remount.

Controlled Damage by Andrea Scott. Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams. A Neptune Theatre production in association with b current Performing Arts. On stage at Neptune Theatre’s Scotiabank Stage (1593 Argyle St, Halifax) until February 23. Visit for more information.

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