Teaching real 'Quebec values' through theatre

Montreal production company devotes season to plays focused on celebrating religious and cultural diversity
geordie.ca

The Quebec Charter of Values, proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013, was supposed to uphold secularism by forbidding public employees from wearing “conspicuous” and “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa, the Sikh turban and the Muslim hijab.

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Fears about McGill Muslim students overtaking private pools and burqa-wearing women invading the city, as the Journal de Montréal’s front pages screamed about Quebecers unknowingly eating halal foods only, exaggerated tensions and burdened a Muslim community already carrying the brunt of Islamophobia.

But when the PQ was defeated come election time, Quebecers sent home a strong message about multicultural and multi-faith inclusion, one that was desperately needed and very much appreciated.

In an extraordinary move inspired by the charter debate, Montreal’s Geordie Theatre Productions decided to devote its entire 2014-15 season to plays focused on the themes of religious and cultural diversity and the importance of acceptance in an increasingly multicultural world.

Chloe’s Choice, by Vancouver-based award-winning playwright and actor Marcus Youssef, running until Dec. 14, was commissioned one year ago by Geordie’s artistic director Dean Patrick Fleming to celebrate Montreal’s (and by extent, Canada’s) diversity, to challenge our prejudices and to open a space for dialogue for younger audiences to explore and navigate our cultural and religious differences.

Youseff, who also wrote Jabber, about an Egyptian-born, hijab-wearing Muslim high-school girl who develops feelings for Jorah, a grade 10 boy with a temper inherited from a father who’s now in jail for beating up his mom, is no stranger to writing plays with a social conscience and a strong message. The son of an Egyptian immigrant, he was profoundly disappointed to see what was playing out in Quebec last year.

“To many progressive leftists, Quebec represents so much about what’s great about Canada, but I saw the charter bring out this paranoia and fear-based rhetoric that was disconcerting,” Youssef said in a telephone interview with Ricochet.

Chloe’s Choice The True But Not Entirely Reasonable Holiday Fable of Chloe Rebecca Ramadan, Aged 9 ⅘, written by Marcus Youssef and directed by Dean Patrick Fleming, resulted from the ambivalence and questions raised by the charter debate. Chloe’s parents have just divorced and she’s about to experience her first holiday season split between two homes, two families and three religions. Her mother returns to her Judaic roots and moves in with a practicing Jewish man and his son, and Chloe’s Christian father is now dating a Nigerian Muslim woman. And just when she thinks that things couldn’t get any more confusing, she discovers the ghost of her grandmother has moved in to her bedroom.

“I love working on plays for children and younger audiences,” explains Youssef, “because it forces you to look for ways to make contentious and complicated issues accessible.

Divorce and balancing different cultures, priorities, and religions in today’s Canada is very much a reality. I want families to come to the play and recognize the universality of the topic, but also to empathize and understand how confusing these situations can sometimes be for children.”

Chloe’s Choice is a thoughtful and heartwarming show, where faith and family are manifested in many different ways, but equally respected and appreciated.

Geordie’s second play for the season will be Theatre Direct’s acclaimed production, Beneath the Banyan Tree, which returns to the Geordie stage in 2015 in a special 10th anniversary tour. This beautiful and engaging production written by Emily Sher blends theatre with classical Indian and contemporary dance to tell the story of Anjali, a young girl trying to adjust to her new life in Canada.

At the heart of the story are themes of identity, bullying and racism, cultural tradition and cultural pride; the latter are central to the relationship between Anjali and her grandmother, Ajji. The constant push and pull — trying to fit into the new while not letting go of the old — is a tension that anyone who has experienced immigration (whether as an immigrant or the child of immigrants) will immediately relate to.

At their very essence, Geordie Productions’ choices for this season are a resounding “no” to the self-limiting and narrow-minded piece of legislation that was the Charter of Quebec Values.

We don’t all have to look and act the same in order to respect one another. We don’t have to remove our crosses and our hijabs in order to live in a society that separates church and state. We don’t need a law legislating appearance, goodwill, perception and the way we choose to interact with one another and co-exist in this multicultural maze of a world.

Chloe’s Choice reminds audiences that whether you worship in a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a temple, or whether you’re an atheist, you owe it to yourself and to your children, who will have to make a life in an increasingly multicultural and multi-religious environment, to expand your horizons and your heart.

What message could be more suited for the holidays than that?

Cloe’s Choice runs until Dec. 14. Beneath the Banyan Tree will run Feb. 20 to Mar. 1. For information on and/or tickets for both these plays you can log on to Geordie’s website.

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