White people performing woke-ness: a review of Shadow Theatre’s Happy Birthday Baby J
Raising your kid in gender prison cuts both ways: Shadow Theatre’s newest show, Happy Birthday Baby J, delves into the messy, oppressive and painful ways that gender norms shape and control our lives.
Nick Green’s script pulls no punches in its exploration of the social dynamics at play between the assembled characters – all of whom are deeply unlikable on a fundamental level. The story centers around an upper-middle-class couple, Louise (Chantal Perron) and Gary (David Ley), who have decided to raise their baby free of gender. Not even their friends and family know the sex of the child, whom they call J. The action takes place on J’s second birthday, over the weekend at Louise and Gary’s lake house where they are hosting an odd assortment of people: Megan (Patricia Cerra), Gary’s daughter and Louise’s step-daughter, Patrick (Mathew Hulshof), Louise’s co-worker-turned-supervisor, and Karomie (Cameron Grant), Patrick’s boyfriend.
The relationships between the characters are a bit convoluted and the first part of the play spends some time teasing them out. The animosity between Megan and Louise becomes apparent very quickly, as well as Megan’s churlish disdain for her father. She earned her PhD four years ago but had no luck finding a job until her father stepped in and got her a position teaching undergrads a curriculum that he designed. Cerra delivers an understated but impactful performance, getting quietly drunk and making occasional derisive comments until the climax of the show, when she steals the spotlight from Louise and Patrick for a few moments to deliver the play’s major twist.
Similarly, while Patrick and Louise appear friendly at first, the tension between them escalates immediately when she discovers that he has been promoted over her during her extended maternity leave. Meanwhile, Patrick aims a barrage of snarky comments at Megan while also butting heads with Karomie. Hulshof plays the flamboyant, needy and selfish Patrick with panache, chewing up the scenery and flippantly delivering his frequently crass lines.
Karomie is the most sympathetic character in the play, whose faults are minor and forgivable – particularly when juxtaposed with the rest of the characters’ toxic soup of ego. He also gets one of the best monologues in the show – a long diatribe against the pernicious toxicity of social media that Grant delivers with alacrity, and which earned a scattering of applause on opening night.
Then there’s Gary, who functions as a kind of erudite wallpaper and is usually steamrolled into silence by Louise. Ley plays him with pensive cognizance: deeply unhappy with how things are going and preoccupied with being socially aware and politically correct at all times, to the point that he can’t even have a simple conversation about music.
These side characters are vivid and portrayed with lively, slightly larger-than-life reality by the assembled performers, but it’s really Perron as Louise who dominates the show. The central tension of the plot is Louise’s self-appointed position as fierce protector/gender gatekeeper/afflicted mother who has made raising her child free of gender the sole purpose of her life. In doing so she has ostracized herself from friends and family, and become hyper-aware of any slight or criticism against her – whether real or imagined.
The play opens with Louise’s monologue about a seemingly benign interaction between kids at their play group – revisited at the height of the play’s climax – which reveals how obsessed she is with the social dynamics between herself and the other mothers and the way they treat her and her child. She has a blind, stubborn, laser focus on all the various ways that the everyone is against her and how she’s the only correct one – the kind of personality that funds the self-help industry. Perron plays this character with eerie authenticity and handles Louise’s frequent fusillade of rants with aplomb.
Taken at face value, Green’s script – particularly the explosive conclusion – could be construed as upholding gender norms. The last scene seems to present a doubling down on the gender stereotypes that Louise has been fighting against since her child was born. It would be easy to walk away and nod your head, thinking that yes, things are just easier if boys wear blue and play with trucks while girls wear pink and play with Barbies.
But there’s also a subtle subversion at work here. Throughout the show, we’ve seen Green’s incisive commentary about the harm and toxicity of upper-class white people performing woke-ness at each other. There’s a sense that through the ferocity of her rejection of gender constructs, and then her breakdown into accepting them, Louise is actually the worst offender of them all. She has made her child’s gender all about her, to the detriment of her wellbeing and the wellbeing of everyone around her.
Intelligent, funny, and well-acted, Happy Birthday Baby J certainly does not solve the social problems it explores. If any solution is offered, it’s one of balance: leaning too far to either side of the spectrum – whether of gender, race or sexual orientation – is tyrannical and oppressive. It’s potent medicine for these troubled times.
Happy Birthday Baby J
By Nick Green
Until Sunday, February 9
Subscribe for updates on Edmonton theatre, arts and culture: