Edwige Jean-Pierre doesn’t want to blame Kurt Cobain for her miserable high school experience. The Toronto-based queer writer/performer grew up in Ottawa in the 1990s, when Nirvana was number one, nihilism was the ruling Zeitgeist and the potentially suicidal slacker was the predominant cultural archetype.
“My later teenage years were all about hating school, feeling like I was misunderstood and wanting to die,” she says. “The pop culture of grunge music definitely had an impact on me, growing up. I don’t want to blame all of my teenage depression on it, but if I’d grown up in the era of Britney Spears, things might have been different.”
If there’s an upside to those tortured teenaged times, it’s that they provide the fodder for her solo show, Even Darkness is Made of Light, which plays SummerWorks this year. The piece centres on 17-year-old Carrie as she navigates a world of unsympathetic geography teachers, over-prescribing psychiatrists and lacklustre motivational speakers. After losing the only friend she has when he drunkenly falls off a cliff, she begins planning her suicide.
“Carrie is really anal and very focused on control and order,” Jean-Pierre says. “She goes to the trouble of planning her own funeral before she decides to go through with it.”
If the description of the show makes it sound like a comedy, that’s because it is.
“This show is definitely funny, as long as you have a dark, quirky sense of humour,” she says. “Suicide is a tough subject to tackle, and comedy can be a very effective form of social commentary. The humour makes the tough parts go down a little easier.”
The play had its beginnings as a class assignment back in 2003 when Jean-Pierre was in her final semester of theatre school at Studio 58 in Vancouver. Tasked with writing and performing a solo show, she quickly gravitated to the subject of suicide.
“It was an issue I’d been interested in for a while,” she says. “There weren’t any good plays about it, so I decided to write one. It’s a subject that people don’t even want to talk about, let alone deal with, which is a big part of what made me want to take it on.
“When I was writing it, I was thinking about the kinds of plays I wish I had seen in high school,” she adds. “I wanted to write something that was more real and not dumb it down with the typical ‘Don’t Have Sex, Don’t Do Drugs’ cheesiness.”
After she finished school, Jean-Pierre, like most aspiring Canadian actors, bought a one-way ticket for Toronto and set about forging a career. She began surfing the web for local theatre companies and came across the site of Buddies in Bad Times.
“I remember the website had a button that said ‘Get Involved,’ and I clicked it,” she says. “I found some information about submissions and sent them a copy of the script.”
Associate artist Moynan King programmed the piece in the Hysteria Festival that fall and later invited Jean-Pierre to write a longer version for Rhubarb. It was there she connected with director Patrick Connor, who also directs at SummerWorks. He helped her develop that version.
Since then, versions of the show have been presented at the AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival in Toronto and the International Play Festival at Ohio Northern University. Jean-Pierre left the piece on the back burner for a few years while she was developing other projects but decided to resurrect it for SummerWorks.
This time around, the purpose of showing the work is a little different.
“The last time I presented the piece in Toronto, it was mostly a way to introduce myself to the local theatre community,” she says. “This time my goal is to create some kind of discussion in the community after people see the play.”
“To be honest, I’m scared shitless of how people are going to react,” she adds. “It’s a comedy about suicide. I’m trying not to put too much emphasis on how it will be received, but I worry it might offend some people.”
She pauses for a moment, then breaks into laughter.
“I guess that’s the Catholic in me.”