Gas Girls: Weighty Issues with a Poetic Edge

“Love for gas. Gas for Cash. Cash for livin’. Livin’ for love.” These words are spoken by a desperate young woman named Gigi in Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s play Gas Girls produced by New Harlem Productions playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace until November 14th, 2009.
This play takes its audience to an unknown place in a time not too far from our own where we are introduced to a man, his little sister, his on-and-off-girlfriend and two men about town. Yet, very quickly we realize that this man is not only a brother and a boyfriend, but also a pimp who forces both the girls in his life to perform sexual favours for gasoline and then pays them meagerly in cash in exchange for the gas. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard has written a play with stunning rhythm and vibrant, poetic language more commonly seen in novels than in plays. It captures everything from a sultry summer’s day to a passionate dance and reflects the world in which these five characters have become so ensnared. What is particularly haunting and fascinating about the story that St. Bernard is telling is how interwoven all the characters become, which enriches the array of emotions, often conflicting, that exist within this tight community of people. It is much easier to draw lines in the sand, to estrange and to condemn someone when they are an outsider pimping out a slew of girls for their own profit. It becomes wildly more complicated when a man is pimping out his own sister and a woman who he has built at least the semblance of a relationship with. It is clear that the man, called Chickn, feels at least vague responsibility towards his young sister (Lola) and Gigi, and these feelings of paternal obligation are mixed up with both some sense of fondness and a pigheaded urgency to succeed in the only way he knows how, by exploiting others with an unwavering brutish hand and prizing money above all human bonds of either affection or family.
Coupled with St. Bernard’s poignant language are four stunning performances which make Gas Girls a vivid theatrical experience. Peter Bailey plays two johns that Gigi and Lola refer to as “Mr. Man,” and although he has created two distinct characters for these johns both are similar in their casual, feigned affability that dissolves in an instant at the slightest hint of resistance by the girls to their every whim. Jamie Robinson is brilliantly twisted as Chickn, cool and calculating, and as suave as he is cruel. It is the two girls, however, who give the most riveting and breathtaking performances in this play. Dienye Waboso is heartbreaking as Gigi, a woman who hinges her life on a dream of a life beyond the border with a husband she hasn’t met yet, and yet who continually must remind herself of the reality that such a dream may never come true. Waboso’s Gigi is a roller coaster of complex emotions all driven by her fierce need to survive. She shares such joy with Lola and then instantly can shut herself off for a business transaction with Mr. Man or a consultation with Chickn. We see the weight of the world pile on Gigi’s shoulders throughout the play and it is through Gigi that the anguish and despair of the gas girls is seen and experienced by the audience. Nawa Nicole Simon plays Lola, a young teenager with the mental capacity of a child of around eight years old. Despite her livelihood performing sexual favours around town, Simon’s Lola is blissful and innocent and exudes the purest of joy in the simplest things, which makes her situation all the more horrific and disturbing. Speaking in a froggy, childlike voice, with her only aspiration to be deemed a “good girl” in the eyes of her brother, Simon has tapped into the very essence of childhood down to the tiniest of details such as how she carries herself, the way she smiles with complete inhibition and the way she reacts to the various horrors that surround her with untainted raw emotion, dreaming only that someday she’ll get to go to the beach. Simon’s performance in this role is absolutely flawless.
There were moments when I felt that Philip Adams’ direction jumped ahead of my ability to understand where the characters were going or who they were talking to, but in general I found that he made good and creative use of the space.
All the characters in Gas Girls are hungry, some are hungry in greed, and others are hungry for sex, while Lola and Gigi are simply hungry for food. When Gigi tells Chickn that he needs to pull Lola off the streets because she doesn’t understand what she is doing he tells her “Lola want to eat. Lola neads to earn. This is no time for dreaming.” Indeed, the harsh reality is cold, and yet St. Bernard does leave her audience with a sense of hope. Beneath the surface there is always the hope that some day’s gonna come and deliver them from the hungry world and transport them on a big truck to some sort of gratifying existence just beyond the border.

Gas Girls plays at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue) until November 14th, 2009. Box office: 416.504.7529 or click here to buy tickets online.