Fuel for heroic theatre

We spoke to the creators of Black Theatre Workshop’sh Gas Girls, a brave portrait of women’s struggle for survival in Zimbabwe.

Gigi and Chickn
Gas Girls

Gigi and Lola are young women with vivid hopes for the future. Gigi will make dresses, Lola will bake. They will have children, nice homes and good, loving husbands.

However, these tantalizing images are far from their current reality. Instead of wielding fabric and flour, Gigi and Lola ply their trade with square gas canisters. Their homes are tumbledown shacks; their husbands are anonymous truckers willing to trade fuel for a few moments with their flesh.

Gigi and Lola are the heroes of Gas Girls, a brave, simple portrait of prostitution in Zimbabwe. A tanking economy and dwindling reserves of gasoline and other supplies have railroaded young women into selling themselves to stay alive. Gigi (Virgilia Griffith) works and lives near the border, and keeps an eye out for the naïve Lola (Alexandra Laferrière), her younger protege.

Gigi and Mr. Man“Love for gas. Gas for cash. Cash for living. Living for love,” is Gigi’s oft-repeated conseil to Lola. Don’t take anything from your client, don’t learn his name, don’t play with matches.

“This is a situation that is essentially about scarcity and desperation, and that is resonant all over the world,” explained playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, who stopped by to visit the production before its Montreal premiere last week.

“It’s all about survival,” said co-director Liz Valdez. “It’s relative, but we do it here, too. It’s what we do to survive, anywhere.”

Valdez co-directed the show with Black Theatre Workshop artistic director Quincy Armorer, a pair the cast referred to as “mama and papa” during production. Valdez, who has directed over 50 productions, has worked in tandem before, but she called this first-time experience with Armorer “symbiotic.”

Both of them also have high praise for St. Bernard’s writing. “She’s a beautiful storyteller,” said Armorer. “She created such real and vivid characters…”

“… with a lot of room for our own storytelling,” added Valdez.

St. Bernard, who is gregarious and friendly in person, is on a behemoth of an artistic mission: dismayed by a lack of Canadian plays inspired by Africa, she decided to conceive and write a creative piece inspired by each nation on the continent. Gas Girls is just one part of what she calls the “54-ology.”

She announced the project while accepting a Dora Mavor Moore award (a big time theatre honour) for Gas Girls in 2009.

“People thought I was so hilarious. I had to wait for them to stop laughing to say, ‘I’m for real, guys.’ And you’re going to be so sorry you laughed,” she remembered with a chuckle.

St. Bernard does her writing by hand, all over her house in Toronto. Around 20 pieces have been completed on paper, with 15 more that exist in outline form. The format is flexible: play, song, spoken word. Each piece is meant to express a story in a different country, but to ultimately be relatable.

This production of Gas Girls features a layered soundscape and simple yet evocative set. Griffith is spritely and touching as the spirited but tragic heroine Gigi. Frequent BTW player Chimwemwe Miller wows as the scary, multiple faces of Mr. Man, the name Gigi gives to their johns.

Gas Girls is a picture of sex work in one specific time and place, and a beautiful, homegrown rendition of what women must do to simply exist.

Gas Girls opens the 44th season of Black Theatre Workshop. The play will be performed at the Segal Centre (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) until Nov. 8, $27/$24 seniors/$22 students