When Diana Lobb, an instructor in English Literature at St. Jerome’s University, started her doctoral project, focusing on multicultural Canadian literature, she chose South Asian Canadian literature specifically.
Her research led her to engage with a lot of theatre texts and productions which sparked her interest in theatre. When an opportunity arose to get involved with the Faculty, Alumni, Students and Staff (FASS) variety show at the University of Waterloo, Lobb knew she wanted to be a part of it. Eventually, she also got involved with the Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre through FASS.
Lobb decided to try directing. She first directed Immigration Acts, two one-act plays. The first was One Officer’s Experiences, a radio interview between Arthur J. Vaughn, a customs officer at Pier 41 during World War II, and a CBC reporter. The second was The Komagata Maru Incident by Sharon Pollock. Lobb said the plays dealt with similar themes.
“How has Canada responded historically to immigrants? How have they treated them? How have they mistreated them? So that was an interesting pairing,” she said.
Lobb went on to direct Pollock’s Blood Relations, a feminist reexamination of the Lizzie Borden murders, and Colleen Murphy’s The December Man, which followed the struggles of one of the men who survived the Montreal massacre.
When KWLT was look=ing to reopen, they asked Lobb to submit a play for a small cast.
Once again, Lobb decided to choose a story that tackled similar lived and shared experiences around race and identity in Canada.
“It’s something that is really central to my interests, but also as a person of colour, it’s central to me…because of my privileged position as an academic, I’ve been able to make space for myself at KWLT,” she said. “So if I can make space for myself, then I need to use that privilege, stick my elbows out, and make sure there’s space enough for everybody.”
Because of her specialization in Canadian literature, Lobb went looking through Playwrights Guild of Canada’s list. She found Ali & Ali the Deportation Hearings, by Camyar Chai, Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef, and she knew it would be perfect for her next production at KWLT.
“The play is very much a play within a play, within a play, within a play, taken to an absurd degree. So, what Ali and Ali are doing at the theater, while I’m putting on the play, is they’re putting on their own play,” Lobb said. “It’s a celebration of the hope and change that President Obama was supposedly going to bring.”
Lobb worried it may be difficult to cast so many male roles because she’s had trouble casting men in the past. However, there was an overwhelming amount of interest, with around 15 men auditioning.
“This is a play that’s written by people of colour, about subject matter that is of interest,” she said, referring to a historical failure when it comes to telling stories about people of colour in our community.
“The stories we tell are how we understand ourselves. And if we’re not telling everybody’s stories, then how, as a community, are we going to understand ourselves?”
The cast includes Prashant Das as Ali Ababwa, Oluwakayode Sodunke as Ali Hakim, Jeffery Song as Hong Kong Lee, Hiyam Mahrat as Suki and Meher Kaur as Suki’s understudy.
“The character of Sukhvinder (Suki), being an RCMP officer, single mother, divorced, and having child care problems caught my attention so quickly,” Kaur said.
The actors bring varying degrees of experience to the roles. Sodunke, a professional actor, is currently a part of the production of Death and the King’s Horseman at the Stratford Festival. Das and Mahrat also have backgrounds in acting.
“Hong Kong/Sun Hyung is a very fascinating character,” Song said. “He tries to protect the two Ali’s from deportation. I’m very excited to play this character!”
But it’s the puppets in the play that might steal the show.
Lobb said a volunteer is building a puppet theatre in which puppets will perform their own play, which will be broadcast to a screen. The idea is that puppets can get away with subject matter that live actors cannot.
The production deals with issues around immigration, the refugee experience and Islamaphobia in Canadian society, issues Lobb said we need to confront.
“We really have to deal with Islamophobia. Because it’s homogenizing an incredibly diverse group of people into something that it’s easy to demonize,” she said.
But despite the serious themes, Lobb said audiences can expect to laugh a lot. She said the play uses a lot of humour and admitted there’s something to offend everyone.
“Humour becomes a way, a tool, of survival. If you can’t laugh at the sheer absurdity of it—at the stupidity of racism, employing stereotypes to try and understand individuals…there’s a complete logical absurdity to it,” she said.
“There comes a point where you just have to laugh. If you’re going to survive. And this is a very, very funny play. It is very, very rude.”
Ali & Ali the Deportation Hearings will open Nov. 10 and run until Nov. 26.