“Love for gas. Gas for cash. Cash for living. Living for love.”
It’s a story that is universal and specific, about survival at any cost and balancing dreams versus reality.
Gas Girls is a politically charged play chronicling the lives of Gigi and Lola, two teenage prostitutes who are paid in gasoline, which their pimp then converts to cash.
Despite having wildly different personalities, Gigi, the eldest of the two, is somewhat hardened, while Lola exudes a youthful naiveté despite being 15-years-old. The young women rely on each other as they navigate the sex trade and try to survive.
The play, co-directed by the Black Theatre Workshop’s Artistic Director Quincy Armorer and Liz Valdez, kicks off the BTW’s 44th season.
Playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard says the idea for the story came from an article she read about women in Zimbabwe who sold themselves at truck stops. During Robert Mugabe’s time in power, the scarcity of gas in the country turned it into a valuable commodity. As such, it was being brought in from neighboring countries via border towns.
Before crafting the play, she spoke to people in the sex trade here in Canada as well as in Zimbabwe, and researched other instances of women trading sex for material goods.
But despite being inspired by a story out of Zimbabwe, the play isn’t actually set in a specific city, and the characters speak English with a nonspecific accent.
The idea, St. Bernard said, was to play up the universality of human trafficking by setting the story in a city that could technically be anywhere. The faux dialect, which is written in a way that allows it to sound different, coming out of each actor’s mouth, is a nod to the eclectic mix of accents usually heard in urban centers where people converge to do business.
Virgilia Griffith, 25, plays the no-nonsense 19-year-old Gigi, whose pragmatism helps quell her dreams of returning to school to be a fashion designer.
Where some might characterize Gigi as jaded, Griffith said she sees her character as a realist, someone who has been forced to put up a front in order to get through life.
She did research on women in the sex trade to prepare for the role, and said she respects their survival instincts.
“I look at it as these women do what they have to do. I don’t judge them,” she said.
Lola, Gigi’s bubbly, innocent companion, is a young 15. She plays with a lighter after getting gas on her clothes, completely unaware of how badly she could be hurt if she were to drop it.
Alexandra Laferrière, 24, portrays Lola and said even though her experience growing up was fundamentally different from her character’s, there were still aspects of her own childhood she felt she could draw on when bringing Lola to life.
Laferrière said she finds the play approaches the sex trade in an honest way, which makes the characters more relatable.
“They’re girls, they’re going to work, and its not the kind of work we see everyday or understand, but they’re human beings. It’s a tougher life than the one we have here, but they’re just trying to get by,” she said.
Chimwemwe Miller plays Mr. Man, a truck driver and client of Gigi’s. His character is one who the audience may see as a villain, a man who has no qualms about having sex with young women for money. But Miller said he wouldn’t refer to his character as the bad guy. Like the rest of the characters, Mr. Man does what he needs to do to survive.
“For me, part of approaching a character is that I don’t take them as the good guy or the bad guy. I have to take them as just a person, because they may do terrible things to everyone around them, but within their own reality there’s something driving them,” he said.
All the actors said regardless of what people’s opinions are walking into their performance, they hope the play sparks a dialogue about the sex trade.
St. Bernard says she’s had audience members approach her to recount how the story resembles women’s experiences in other countries, where water or food, not gas, is the scarce commodity.
“That’s the best possible response for me. If I tell my story, and it makes you want to tell your story, I win. We win,” she said.
Gas Girls runs at the Segal Centre Studio until Nov. 8.
For more information, visit Www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca or for tickets contact the Segal Box Office at 514-739-7944.