There are over 80,000 registered charities in Canada advocating public support for a number of causes. With so many charities in competition for both public and private funds, how do they separate themselves from the rest? That question is answered in Albertan playwright Matthew MacKenzie’s Benefit, a compelling drama that explores the ethics of charity.
Enjoying its world premiere at Downstage in the Motel Theatre, Mackenzie’s Benefit stages an extravagant gala fundraiser hosted by an Albertan charitable foundation that supports young girls’ education worldwide. The play opens with an auction for rare orchids hosted by Fred MacDonald (Duval Lang), the founder and head of the foundation. His wife Cynthia (Barbara Gordon) joins him in playing up the exotic nature of the orchids. The evening’s true star, however, is Srey Norris (Donna Soares), a young woman from Cambodia who was the foundation’s first beneficiary. Srey works for the foundation now as a spokesperson, delivering speeches to politicians and other potential donors about the foundation’s work. The foundation’s future is threatened when Srey’s husband Greg Norris (Tyrell Crews), an orchidologist, discovers a dark secret from Fred’s past.
MacKenzie’s play highlights the importance of narratives that appeal to the public’s emotions. Fred recounts a time he thought the foundation was beat because someone’s ‘sob story’ about their people being killed for sport was a real doozy. Thankfully, Srey blew everyone else’s stories out of the water by tying each of their stories together and positioning education as the solution to the world’s problems. The cause doesn’t speak for itself, MacKenzie argues, it requires a story developed around it
In trying to outperform other narratives, however, charities risk degrading the people they are trying to help by engaging in poverty porn. Think about the children that UNICEF or World Vision use in their television commercials. The children are rarely shown living in sanitary conditions, instead they shown living in absolute “third-world” squalor. Certainly, the living conditions in certain areas of the world are not ideal, but charitable organizations make sure to show the worst of the worst, firmly establishing these negative images in the public’s mind overtime. If they didn’t, then the public might not think that the situation is dire enough for their support.
And so, using Srey as a spokesperson is a powerful tactic since she is a well-educated and well-spoken immigrant of colour; a new member of the first-world. Her presence proves the foundation’s effectiveness at lifting third-world children from dirt to civilization. Fred sees Srey as a daughter, yes, but he undoubtedly sees her as an important part of the foundation’s own narrative. So, how genuine is their relationship? How genuine is any working relationship between white philanthropists and people of colour recruited to help the cause? We are asked to consider the motives behind the promotion of diversity, especially within predominantly white organizations. Can charitable organizations only go so far without the (white) guilt that foreignness arouses?
MacKenzie’s play offers plenty to consider about the ethics of charity, like the hypocrisy of holding a lavish gala while millions can barely afford to live both domestically and abroad. And it’s all written marvelously with no easy answers, well no answers at all actually. The play presents its issues and leaves the audience, hopefully unsettled by the revelations that unfold, to think about what the greater good really means – how far is too far?
And it’s all impeccably staged by director Simon Mallett with great intimacy inside the 50-seat theatre. Alley staging puts the audience into close quarters with the actors. Deitra Kalyn’s set bleeds extravagance while remaining functional i.e. good sightlines. The beams get in the way occasionally, though, but only briefly. The audience’s seats have been designed to fit the hall’s aesthetics, so the theatre really feels like an extension of the hall itself. The set looks fantastic under Kathryn Smith’s lighting design.
Soares and Crews truly challenge each other as their characters grapple with the truth behind Fred’s past. Soares lights up the stage, with Crews responding beat for beat. Lang plays the wealthy philanthropist with gusto, adding in a nice touch of older relative who says racially insensitive things at the dinner table. Gordon is much more stiff upper crust, moving with poise across the stage, but she’s not so innocent. Lang and Gordon play very privileged white folk who are unaware of their privilege, and it’s equally delightful and aggravating. The veteran actors are a wonderful pairing, like wine and cheese.
Brilliantly written, MacKenzie’s Benefit is socially relevant theatre at its finest. A must-see.
Downstage’s Benefit runs April 13 – 30 at the Motel Theatre (Arts Commons).
For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.downstage.ca/benefit.shtml