Social Studies uses humour to explore its serious subject matter

With the Syrian refugee crisis continuing to make headlines, it is almost as if by divine providence that Trish Cooper’s Social Studies is part of the Firehall Arts Centre season. That it also fit into artistic director Donna Spencer’s focus on female playwrights this year is a bonus.

“Trish Cooper’s Social Studies shows the compassionate, caring side of Canadians while questioning our fears and feelings about people whose lives have been so different than ours,” says Spencer, who also directs. “It is funny, it is moving, and it makes me proud to be reminded of how giving Canadians can be.”

A comedy with a serious message, Social Studies tells the story of Deng, one of countless Lost Boys of Sudan who were displaced and orphaned during the Sudanese civil war from 1983-2006. Eventually finding himself in Canada, he is adopted by a well-intentioned Winnipeg family.

“It is inspired by true events,” says Cooper by phone from Winnipeg. “I was living in Toronto and I was moving back to Winnipeg, unemployed and feeling like a bit of a loser. I think my agent had just fired me too. So, I moved back to Winnipeg to stay with my mom until I got back on my feet, and she had this Sudanese refugee living with her.”

A peace activist and actively involved with her church, Cooper says her mom is one of those people that really does “walk the walk”. Having met the young man living in a one-bedroom apartment with six others at the time, Cooper’s mother invited him to move in with her. Staying for a little over a year, Cooper was inspired to write about that experience, and of the reactions to the situation.

“I noticed a lot of my mom’s friends thought she was crazy, letting this guy living with her,” she says. “It was that reaction from people and learning his story that became the basis for the play. The real story is really quite boring though, so I used that as start.”

Playwright Trish Cooper
Playwright Trish Cooper uses her mom’s real-life experience with a Lost Boy of the Sudan as the inspiration for Social Studies

To help tell her story, Cooper uses a theatrical device intended to give some real-life context to the Lost Boys of the Sudan, and which also helps explain her title.

“One of the characters is giving a social studies presentation throughout the play for her grade ten class,” explains Cooper. “It goes back and forth about her presentation on the Sudan and the Lost Boys of the Sudan to give context without Deng having to talk about it too much. It is a chance to learn where he is really from, and how it is affecting her.”

As a comedian, it isn’t surprising that Cooper uses a liberal dose of humour to tell her story. That humour comes at the expense of the average Canadian though, and not the play’s more serious subject matter.

“When we are laughing we are recognizing truths; when we’re laughing we are taking things in differently rather than sitting in an audience being horrified,” she says. “I would never make fun of this tragedy, but what I am making fun of is middle class Canadians and how we respond to things like this. The comedy comes from the privilege and attitudes we have.”

Of course, any conversation about refugees these days naturally gravitates to the Syrian crisis, and Cooper is both hopeful and concerned about our country’s abilities to be part of the solution.

“In 2006 when the Sudanese came to Canada things were actually better for refugees than they are now,” says Cooper who points to the withdrawal of health care services for refugees by the federal government as an example. “Right now the most important thing is to get them here.”

As for the Sudanese fellow that was the inspiration for Social Studies? Cooper says she and her mom still keep in touch from time-to-time, and while he has not seen the play, he does know it exists.

“I think I would love for him to see it,” concludes Cooper.

Social Studies plays the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St, Vancouver) November 21 – December 5. Visit http://firehallartscentre.ca for tickts and information.