Viewing History Through a Different Lens
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
Serving Elizabeth, now on stage at the Thousand Island Playhouse in Gananoque, gives us an interesting look at a moment in history. Those of us who are descendants of Great Britain have been taught history from textbooks created by settlers for settlers. We know little about history of from others’ points of view.
In Serving Elizabeth we have a wonderful opportunity to see history as it is told by someone other than an English-speaking white man. When playwright Marcia Johnson saw the first season of the Netflix series The Crown, she recognized that it was told from the perspective of a white Englishman. Watching the second episode of season one where Elizabeth’s father dies, Johnson was inspired to write this play. She saw a need for a Kenyan interpretation of the Princess’s trip.
When George VI dies in February 1952, young Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Phillip, the Duke of Edenborough, are travelling in Kenya, representing the King in one of the many British colonies in Africa. Mercy, who owns a restaurant, is asked to cook Kenyan food for the Princess, and her daughter, Faith, is recruited to serve the Royal couple. This goes against all that Mercy believes: She was part of the Kenyan women’s rebellion against British rule and she objects to curtseying and waiting on the Princess.
But her daughter who is star struck by royalty finally coerces her to do it. Obviously difficulties ensue, but I can’t reveal more without spoiling the plot.
The audience is carried back and forth between Mercy dealing with tension in 1952 Kenya and a present day writer who has created a TV series about the Royal Family, told only from his view as an English, privileged, white male.
Each actor has two roles, one in 1952 Kenya and one in the modern day filming of the TV series.
Playwright Marcia Johnson has contrasted the two stories very well. Princess Elizabeth’s trip to Kenya in 1952 was recorded only by the English reporters who were travelling with her. All they saw were adoring subjects lining the roads, waving to the future queen. When the play takes the audience to the scenes of today’s TV show, again, the viewers only learn the story from a white, English perspective. In both worlds, we are given a black women’s point of view, and it is enlightening.
Not only has the playwright created a fascinating story, Marcia Johnson is starring in this production. She brilliantly performs the dual roles of Mercy, the Kenyan cook, and Pat, the woman working as a casting director on the TV production. Johnson creates a fascinating Mercy: She knows her manners and wants to treat customers who come into her restaurant properly. But she also has a deep-seated resentment of British colonialism and all that the monarchy represents. Johnson deftly shows us both sides of this complicated role.
Makambe K. Simamba gives us the characters of Faith, Mercy’s daughter, and also Tia, the young film student working on the TV series. As Faith, she has grown up wanting to be a princess, and therefore is fascinated when Princess Elizabeth arrives. Simamba shows us Faith’s youthful exuberance and her desire for something better when she longs to go away to university. As Tia, she shows us Tia’s naivety about how people are portrayed in the movies and on TV. Simamba enriches both stories with her portrayals showing the growth of both characters.
Shannon Currie in the roles as HRH Princess Elizabeth and Robin, the TV show producer gives us two very different characters. She becomes the haughty royal, but is still able to let the Princess’s softer side show through.
Andy Trithardt, as Mr. Talbot, the representative of the Royal Family who plans and oversees their travel, and as the writer of the TV series, handles both roles perfectly. He has a stiff-upper-lip, suitable as the Royal’s agent, and the arrogance of a rich writer.
Jordin Hall is both Mr. Talbot’s driver and an actor auditioning for a role in the TV series. Both characters open the audience’s eyes regarding the treatment of Blacks in 1952 Kenya and modern day England. Hall handles the difficult roles adroitly.
The actors create realistic confrontation to bring the two stories to their climaxes. The scene where Mercy (Johnson) and Princess Elizabeth (Currie) face off is heart wrenching. Johnson’s Mercy shows her disdain of the monarchy and her disgust with colonialism as she is tasked with preventing the Princess from learning of her father’s death on the radio. But her compassion for a fellow human who is about to learn of a great loss also shines through.
In the modern story, Tia (Simamba) confronts the screenwriter (Trithardt) about his lack of a Black interpretation of the TV series. Again the two characters create an intense scene with their differences.
The modern day scenes are a bit didactic, but since those of us who are descendants of colonists need educating, it’s not a bad thing.
The only concern about this show is that too much time is spent moving around chairs and props when the scenes change between 1952 and present day. I suspect that some of the movement is simply to put in time while cast members change costumes and wigs as they switch scenes.
It is well-worth the trip to Gananoque to have your eyes opened to another point of view. Most of us have much to learn, and seeing this play will educate as well as entertain.
Note that the show is 90 minutes with no intermission.
Despite the Ontario government allowing full capacity in theatres, Thousand Island Playhouse will continue with 50% audience capacity until the end of the 2021 season. The Playhouse feels that ticket holders made the purchase with specific safety parameters in mind and they don’t feel it is fair to change that now.
Serving Elizabeth continues at the Thousand Island Playhouse, Gananoque until October 30, with all Covid protocols in place. Tickets are available by calling 613-382-7020 or visit https://www.1000islandsplayhouse.com/whats-on/
Photo: Makambe K. Simamba as Faith and playwright Marcia Johnson as Mercy in Serving Elizabeth at Thousand Island Playhouse. Photo by Randy deKleine-Stimpson.
By Marcia Johnson
Directed by Marcel Stewart
Performed by Shannon Currie, Jordin Hall, Marcia Johnson, Makambe K. Simamba, Andy Trithardt.
Firehall Stage, Thousand Island Playhouse, Gananoque
October 7 to 30, 2021
Reviewed by Mary Alderson