In a city where there are scads more actors and actresses than there are roles to perform in, there is one person on stage who is very very different.
The standout star is Toronto’s Virgilia Griffith, a young woman who has been constantly employed – plays, dance performances, and TV roles – since graduating from Ryerson’s Theatre Program some eight years ago.
In the last year the Caribbean Camera has strongly praised her work in three different plays - Soulpepper’s Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Tarragon’s Harlem Duet, and Obsidian’s Other Side Of The Game. Now she winning standing O’s in Tarragon’s Extra Space co-starring in Guarded Girls, an all-women 90-minute play about the horrors of prison.
It is a brand new work by Governor General’s Literary Award nominee Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman. It stars Griffith, Columpa Bobb, Vivien Endicott-Douglas and Michaela Washburn.
Set on a stage bereft of both sets and wall, the four actresses play a variety of characters inside a Canadian jail for females. This is a wrenching but often humourous study of the complicated relationships between inmates, their guard and extended families.
In this commentary on the penal system, Corbeil-Coleman investigates the impact of prison time on an individual’s mind. According to director Richard Rose’s notes, the point of the play is to ask questions about the impact of our prison system on female inmates over generations of time : “How are daughters affected by their mothers' prison sentences? What reverberations on daughters do we see from those who have mothers working in the prison system?”
Three cast members portray inmates (and have smaller roles as guards and family members). Veteran First Nation’s actress Columpa Bobb is their mostly mute guard and gatekeeper to the outside world.
Virgilia Griffith is Brit, a cheerful inmate from the “Toon” (Saskatoon). She is behind bars serving a relatively short sentence and has probably been wrongly convicted. Her crime? Picking up a bloody knife off the floor following a late night stabbing.
Once inside she sees first hand the damage that solitary confinement has upon the incarcerated.
When 19-year-old Sid (Endicott-Douglas) is transferred in, she finds friendship with Britt — but also forms a complicated relationship with the guard who watch their every move. Soon, it’s the guard who’s being watched, and this playful, theatrical, mysterious work heads toward a shocking conclusion.
Griffith’s is a Black woman in a White jail. Very much the outside, she adjusts to living with seriously traumatized, sometimes violent long-term convicts. Her “nailed it” performance brings light to living in a dark place. She finds love and friendship from her jail mates and eventually freedom.
“Prison for women is no walk in the park,” continued Rose. “It impacts generations - children, partners, parents. White, Black. Even the first Nations prison guard suffers from PTSD after an inmate holds her prisoner (when she is denied permission to see her visiting daughter for the first time in years).”
When the Caribbean Camera attended the World Premier the audience, awarded the actresses with a long long standing ovations. Guarded Girls runs nightly except Mondays until May 6th in Toronto before heading to Kitchener where it will be performed in the Registry Theatre, Kitchener.