Last Saturday afternoon I went to see Talia Hallmona and Pascal Brullemans’ play Me and You. It is about the sensitive issue of immigrant integration in Québec. Moi et l’Autre was originally written in French and won the Louise-LaHaye prize, an award that recognizes excellence in plays for a young audience. Here is the synopsis from the Talisman Theatre’s website:
A young actress recalls her childhood memories and her arrival in Quebec. As the story unfolds, she recounts her meeting with Julie Sirois, her best friend—a quebecoise who dies in an accident. Denying this reality, Talia will interrupt the story and change the course of her destiny by giving her role to Julie. But she soon discovers that sharing her life with others has risks, especially when it comes to uniting two cultures that everything dissociates. Autofiction where reality and freedom are scrambled, Me and You portrays a friendship that defies conventions and looks at the identity of the immigrant, posing the question : Do we acknowledge the Other for what he gives us, or for what he takes from us?
The structure of the play is interesting. Numbered cards are brought out to introduce each brief scene. The two girls meet in high school and become fast friends, but only after Talia (Mirian Katrib) has been taunted and ostracised by her classmates for being an immigrant. The horrors of high school are intensified. Talia is half Egyptian and half Greek/Italian.
The acting was impressive. Kathleen Stavert as Julie, the rock’n roll teenager from Laval was electric. Although it is a short play, time passes quickly (in both senses) and we learn what life is like for Talia — confusing to say the least. After high school, she decides to become an actress, perhaps in the hope that assuming scripted roles will provide her with an identity, however temporary. Before long she announces to her mother that she now wants to be a revolutionary, so to get that out of her system, her mother brings her to an Egyptian community meeting where she is rudely denigrated by a young man for not speaking Arabic and for being a slut. Her mother overhears the conversation and is angry that her daughter didn’t tell him to go to hell, so they quickly leave. Katrib does a fine job switching from mother to daughter.
At one point, we overhear her mother on the phone to Egypt. For me this was really where the play took off. Not only is it difficult for immigrants to create a place for themselves in Quebec society, but the problems they have escaped from remain very real for them when they have left loved ones behind and hear of the horrors taking place but can do nothing. Although I belong to a minority in Québec, as a middleclass anglophone, I am not subjected to this painful reality. Of course I can watch news reports on the CBC or Aljazeera, or watch various YouTube videos about the war torn middle-east, but I can always turn the TV or computer off and forget about it.
Nonetheless, it was a pleasant surprise to read a recent online article reporting that the Syrian refugees in Canada had organized a fund-raising campaign on Facebook. They wanted to help the people who had to flee from the ranging fires in Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, near the Canadian tar sands. The Syrians said they understood exactly what it was like to suddenly lose their homes and wanted to do something in return for the help they had received from the people of Canada.
The sense of reconciliation Me and You suggests also merits comment. When we learn that Julie has died in a car crash, Talia quickly denies that this has happened. From that point on Sylvie inhabits part of Talia’s psyche, an idea which I think is well illustrated in the advertising poster shown above. The original French title is somewhat different: it emphasizes the opposition between self and other, yet the play collapses that seemingly unbreechable distance. What is remarkable is that all these various parts end up contributing to the construction of an identity — one that is not necessarily coherent. Perhaps it would be helpful to add that coherence may not be necessary.