Being able to maintain oneself amidst frustration is a theme that is explored in Audrey Dwyer’s play Calpurnia. She examines the idea of upholding your identity and the moments Jamaican-Canadians might feels the need to compromise who they are in order to fit into certain environments. Through her characters she attempts to answer, what exactly does it mean to be Black and Canadian?
Dwyer’s depiction of the nuclear Black family provides a unique outlook on how the Finch’s found their comfortability in upper middle class environments. Calpurnia was a reminder to audiences that there is no standard for Black identity. How we manifest our identities is completely up to how we perceive our culture, something that can only be discovered after years of growing and learning. “Black identity in Canada is an extremely varied thing. There’s so many different cultures in Canada but those cultures intersect with class.”, Dwyer shares via email.
The family in Calpurnia exudes lushness. Their home is a testament of their wealth but often acts as a facade for their dysfunctional setting. “The father, Lawrence Finch (Andrew Moodie) is very concerned about looks and how he presents himself, so having the family live in an area like Forest Hill sends a particular message.”. Lawrence, an Afro-Caribbean judge in Toronto, is prideful in his accomplishments and career while his glamourous home mirrors his wealthy image. Julie’s brother Mark (Matthew Brown), an up-and-coming lawyer in Toronto, is pushed by his father to join an even better law firm. When Mark meets his father’s friend James (Don Allison), Mark is forced to choose between his morals and a potential job. While Mark struggles to live up to his father’s expectations, his daughter Julie’s (Meghan Swaby) focus is towards educating her family about their misconceptions about the history of racism, which is brought to light once Julie’s in-depth research of racial prejudice in Harper Lee’s novel is debated between her, Lawrence and her brother.
Julie, a 28 year-old screenwriter, strives to produce a film that chronicles Harper Lee’s infamous character Calpurnia from To Kill a Mockingbird, which the stage play and the Finch’s maid is aptly titled after. “Thanks to the internet, she has access to a more self-aware way of life and social injustice but she’s still in the process. She’s someone who’s still figuring out her politics”, Dwyer mentions. Julie’s privileged upbringing in a rich neighbourhood tends to conflict with her perceived awareness of social injustice and her family has a hard time understanding her empathy for these issues.
Characters like Lawrence represent the desire of many parents, especially immigrant ones, who’ve worked hard to establish a better life for their children. Lawrence is single parent and is challenged with being the sole provider for his family while teaching his children about the history of their home country is buried beneath his career life. “It's not about turning your back on your culture but in order to stay afloat you can't delve into all different areas of your life,” the playwright shares. Lawrence doesn’t speak Patois to his children, does not travel to Jamaica and often gets annoyed when talking to distant relatives over the phone. While some might assume Lawrence has no aspiration to express his cultural ties to Jamaica, the neighbourhood he lives in sequesters him from his family back home. Lawrence and his son Mark act as two examples of this lifestyle: Mark’s aspirations for wealth became his primary pursuit while his father’s expectations constantly motivate him to want more financially.
Dwyer’s depiction of suburban life for Jamaican-Canadians may not be a universal experience for all representing this diaspora, but the story it tells explores a particular struggle that some migrants face when class and race intersect.