The world premiere of the play No White Picket Fence was held on Wednesday, Feb. 1st, 2017, at Saint Thomas University’s Black Box Theatre. Director Professor Robin Whittaker composed the play with researcher Sue McKenzie-Mohr.
The performance is based on interviews McKenzie-Mohr and her research assistants did with former female foster children from New Brunswick. The interviews were done, transcribed and selected for remarkable material in order to make a script. Whittaker, director of the Theatre Program at STU and himself a playwright, curated the selection of pieces to use and added in the artistic elements to make a play.
McKenzie-Mohr has practiced social work and was a social work professor at STU from 2003 until the end of last year. She researches the way telling stories helps people overcome adversity and become resilient. Posters for the play included cautionary messages about the content that included violence, drug and alcohol addiction, incest, sexual assault, abandonment, and other trauma. A quiet room was available in the building, reserved for those members of the audience needing it.
The play’s production was also supported by Partners for Youth and the New Brunswick Youth in Care Network, which has a contract with the government until 2018 to provide a voice for children in foster care and improve services for them. The Network released its most recent report in 2013: “A Long Road Home: An account of the first ever New Brunswick Youth in Care Hearings.”
The cast was made up of 10 people who each played one of the former foster children. Because of its nature, the script was often demanding of the performers but all gave wonderful performances. Members of the audience were in tears during certain emotionally-charged sections of the monologues.
Whittaker’s artistic design in STU’s Black Box Theatre was stark, with miniature cookie-cutter houses placed on a black and white street grid. The tiny houses doubled as seats for the actresses as the spotlight shifted from one actress to the other. Otherwise, the only other set-like area was a small office-like setting where, one by one, the women took turns in the spotlight, acting as both interviewers and interviewees in this setting.
The actresses were also filmed by other performers onstage and the image was projected wirelessly from the hand-held camera to a television at the rear of the stage. The slight delay between the voice and the image was unsettling but mirrored the time between the lived experience of the foster children and their adult recollection of their (often traumatic) experiences. A projector indicated transitions between stories with a variety of simple and more creative titles.
The play was followed by a panel discussion with three actresses, Whittaker, McKenzie Mohr and a local social worker. One audience member whose story was included in the play rose to thank Theatre St. Thomas for the work and for having been able to participate throughout the process of creating the play. First year social work students suggested that the play should tour and be required viewing for social workers in the province. Whittaker said this would depend on many factors but recognized the significance of the production.
Sophie M. Lavoie writes on arts and culture for the NB Media Co-op and is an editorial board member.