Written by Canadian playwright Donna Michelle St. Bernard, Gas Girls is an aesthetically intricate play that shares the story of two African girls who survive by trading sex for gasoline, which they then sell for cash. Loosely based on a real-life occurrence in Zimbabwe, the play has immense potential to tell these girls’ story and in turn, open up a dialogue about the global sex industry, female autonomy, and universal struggles. Although enjoyable, the play falls short of delivering a clear assertion to Canadian audiences—instead it is clouded by a monotonous plotline, mediocre acting, and problematic messages.
Set in an unspecified borderland of Africa, “gas girls” Gigi (Virginia Griffith) and Lola (Alexandra Laferrière) solicit highway truck drivers for gas, which their broker, Chickn (Jimmy Salami) converts to cash. Gigi serves as a mentor of sorts to the younger Lola, who often succumbs to men’s flirting and becomes emotionally attached. According to Gigi, interactions should be calculated transactions, nothing more. Gigi’s constant nagging toward Lola and Chickn quickly became overdone and distracted from the unfolding plot.
Another distractor was the dialect used by the characters throughout the play. Muddled, grammatically incorrect, and unclearly defined, the dialect was a deliberate creation. Rather than isolating a specific area of Africa, the playwright seemed to want to play with the idea of universality. Although the events that take place are specific to the individuals, the struggles transcend borders, culture, and race. This idea reoccurred throughout the play and there is no doubt that it is a powerful one. However, the true purpose of this spunky dialect—besides for perhaps its aesthetic value—feels a bit contradictory. The ambiguous “African” dialect almost generalizes a regional issue and reinforces the mistakenly blended North American view of Africa.
“We all have the same struggle,” Gigi explains to Lola and Chickn. Universality as a concept is important in understanding the play, but really, what else does it do besides evoke empathy toward sex workers in this ambiguous “Africa.”
As it professes it will, the play does much to initiate a discussion of sex workers and the abuse they suffer, as well as the autonomy and negotiation of power that they wager and deserve to maintain. The audience is presented with the intricacies of the characters’ personalities and the nuances within their power struggles and economic hierarchy—something that is absent from much of the North American conversation regarding sex workers.
The “Mr. Mann” character—probably the most successfully executed element of the production—stands in as a symbol for patriarchy in context of the play. A single actor (Chimwemwe Miller) portrays every man that the girls interact with as they work. Sometimes he is cold and cruel, while other times he shows the girls respect and kindness. Miller conveys Mr. Mann’s sadness, flaws, and diversity but also emphasizes his persistent continuity, reminding audiences that he is largely a product of a greater societal construction and cycle of abuse.
The gas metaphor was a strong aspect of the play. The actors engage in an opening dance that incorporates gasoline cans, artistically portraying the cyclical process of the girls’ transactions. Gas, which represents the girls’ livelihood, also serves as their greatest struggle—and, in this production, their ultimate downfall.
In all, the plotline was overly clichéd, repetitive, and unclear. The dialogue was exhausting, and without an intermission for reflection time, the messages were never fully developed. Gas Girls most definitely has extensive potential and has some strong points, but fails to fully ignite.
Gas Girls runs from Oct. 21 to Nov. 8 at the Segal Centre (5170 Chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine). Tickets start at $22.