Elbow Room is a special project for playwright Lana Lovell. Known for her work as a documentarian — writing, directing, and producing documentaries and factual-based programs for CBC, Bravo, OMNI — Lovell took a 5-year creative break before bringing Elbow Room to the stage. “This is a story rooted in women’s pursuit of excellence,” shared Lovell. “The rivalries, victories, injuries and absurdities in Elbow Room provide a glimpse into that space where women experience growth as they become their better selves.”
Directed by Conrad Coates, the one-act play introduces us to a lively set of characters: Saada (Stephanie Smith), the persistent thespian who has experienced the rollercoaster of career highs and lows; Nancy (Shanique H. Brown), the famed and successful actress; Kia (J.D. Leslie), the plucky and enthusiastic newcomer on the scene; and Hanna (Alix Parra), the casting assistant who watches all the hijinks from her desk. All three actresses are in the running for the role of Cleopatra Jones in a studio remake, and all three are stuck for an hour in the waiting room while Hanna balances production team delays and the waning patience of the actresses. What happens when you have three Black actresses, all vying for the same legendary role? Honesty and hilarity that pack punches as strong as Jones herself.
In a phone interview with Lovell prior to the July 4th opening night, I asked if the characters represented different aspects or archetypes of Black womanhood. “No, not so much archetypes,” she clarified. “They represent Black women in different stages of their career and the obstacles they have to overcome.” For Lovell, centring the play around Black actresses was significant. The character of Cleopatra Jones is a noted personal inspiration and icon for the playwright, but actresses themselves have a particularly unique relationship to the ideas of work and career. Basing a theatrical study of Black women’s career trajectories through the lens of the acting industry offers a wealth of material and creates a clear link to the ways we strive for success.
Elbow Room premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival in the intimate Annex Theatre, and as I sat in the front row, I realized the set itself was a mere arms’ length away. The staging added to the closeness and connection between the audience and actresses, which I really enjoyed.
Chalking it up to opening night jitters, Elbow Room started off a bit slow and hesitantly, like the characters were dipping their toe in the water to check the temperature before diving in. Once they finally did — motivated first by the sweet-and-sour ‘frenemy’ vibes between Smith’s Saada and Brown’s Nancy, then encouraged by the comedic relief provided by Leslie’s Kia — the performances hit a good pace that allowed the audience to enjoy the honest and genuinely hilarious expressions of Black women seeking success. Some elements felt out-of-place but endearing (the dance break) while others felt just plain out-of-place (the spray bottle incident), and at the end of the play, I wished those elements were instead used to create more room for the story and interaction between the characters.
Lovell created a unique space where we could laugh with and ponder the experiences of Black women at various points in their careers, finding ourselves in their stories no matter our particular vocation. The leads crafted their characters excellently, never wavering in who Saada, Nancy, Kia, and Hanna were, and I left wanting more in the best way. During our phone conversation, I asked Lovell how she wanted people to feel after seeing Elbow Room. “It’s about going for your dreams,” she said. “So I want people to feel the victory in going for it.” With Elbow Room, Lovell goes for it — and I can’t wait to see what she creates next.
Elbow Room plays at the Toronto Fringe Festival until July 14th.
Bee Quammie is an award-winning blogger, freelance writer, and event host/creator with an affinity for big hair, thick books, and Caribbean sunsets. Find more of her thoughts and words at her blogs 83toinfinity.com and thebrownsugamama.com, and at publications like Parents Canada, For Harriet, Chatelaine, BlogHer.