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Yvonne Addai, left, and Kudakwashe Rutendo in Vierge at Factory Theatre.DAHLIA KATZ/Factory Theatre

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  • Title: Vierge
  • Written by: Rachel Mutombo
  • Director: Natasha Mumba
  • Actors: Yvonne Addai, JD Leslie, Kudakwashe Rutendo, Shauna Thompson
  • Company: Factory Theatre
  • City: Toronto, Ont.
  • Year: April 8-30, 2023

Bonds, secrets, faith and fellowship: Vierge, by Canadian actor/writer Rachel Mutombo, covers a lot of ground over its 105-minute running time. The new work movingly explores the tender terrain where self, family and history collide, collapse and sometimes become inseparable. It makes for simultaneously gripping theatre and a thoughtful window into the real, lived realities of teenaged Congolese female experience.

Vividly depicting a world “as restrictive as it is expressive” – as the playwright states in the program notes – the work, which opened at the Factory Theatre in Toronto on Thursday night, features stellar performances from its four-person ensemble and smart, sensitive direction by Natasha Mumba, who was born in Zambia and is now based in Toronto.

The paradox Mutombo references in the program notes is manifest onstage through the purposeful setting of a church activity room, complete with dusty old furniture and a set of crucifixes and cooking utensils embedded within the walls (the work of set and props designer Rachel Forbes).

The tenuous balance between personal and communal power is a major subtext of the work and is given a sparky edge by a talented young cast. Divine Kabamba (Shauna Thompson) is an earnest 16-year-old attempting to lead a Bible study group. She meets combative Congolese sisters Grace (Yvonne Addai) and Sarah Katende (JD Leslie) and the helpful Bien-Aimé Ilunga (Kudakwashe Rutendo), who, as a minister’s daughter, seems to hold a good deal of power. Her father may have been mysteriously let go from his position, but she is confident in her equal knowledge of God, Bible and boys.

That confidence contrasts sharply with Divine’s extreme awkwardness, highlighted at the beginning by her own admission to the Katende sisters of not being baptized. Where she and Bien-Amé have an advantage is in language: Being Canadian-accented clearly affords them a privilege Sarah and Grace lack. It’s a privilege used as a means of bullying, whether it’s for the sisters’ perpetual tardiness or Grace’s lack of English proficiency.

Bien-Aimé, who acts as Divine’s protector of sorts, offers droves of withering remarks, and Rutendo uses her marvellously expressive face to convey a brand of teenaged snark any parent would recognize. However, that snark melts into horror as she reveals the details of her sexual assault by the current church minister to a shocked Divine in an office prior to a party. The setting should tip the audience off to further events, but Mutombo wisely keeps the focus on the energy between the girls themselves, and what they inspire, for good or bad, in one another.

The broader church community is conveyed with elegant economy of writing, with numerous references to tangible elements, such as the church services the play’s characters regularly attend, and more intangible things, namely religious hierarchies and concomitant abuse of power. Still, Mutombo’s writing never feels heavy-handed or didactic. Rather, the playwright uses a smart balance of light and dark throughout to convey the characters’ negotiation of their roles as leaders, rebels and would-be sexual beings.

Open this photo in gallery:

From the left: Kudakwashe Rutendo, Shauna Thompson, JD Leslie, and Yvonne Addai in Vierge.DAHLIA KATZ/Factory Theatre

Through a variety of settings, from a meeting room and an office, to a dance floor and a change room, there is room for the girls to reveal and conceal various aspects of their lives and personal histories. But which lives and histories are real, and which are imagined? Vierge ably strikes both serious and comedic tones, whether its characters are praising biblical figures or espousing the joys of kissing.

By contrast, all the male characters – fathers, ministers, boyfriends, would-be boyfriends – go unseen, which makes the careful choices of Mumba all the richer. Likewise, the theatrical elements used as part of Vierge are wielded with clinical precision; Andrew Johnson’s thoughtful sound design moves between textures and rhythms with poetic ease, often underlining the significance of the work’s power dynamics, while Jareth Li’s moody lighting reflects both sacred and profane experiences, sometimes simultaneously.

At one point, Divine is shown coming into her own and breaking into a mad dance, a single spotlight revealing the emotional as well as spiritual dimensions of a drunken, joyous moment. The play closes with a fascinatingly similar image, this time of Divine being baptized – an act that comes at a terrible personal cost to the young but suddenly wise girl.

A moving exploration of identity, history, community and the spaces in which they unite and invariably push apart, Vierge is a memorable baptism into a world beyond the binaries of purity and impurity, Congolese and Canadian, religious and sinful. Mutombo asks us to seek wholeness through fellowship, something which, in itself, may be the most divine thing of all.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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