by: Caleigh Crow

I met with Joy Ross-Jones in North America’s first Cat Café. Four of the creatures were sitting at the window sill, and one was snoozing on a nearby perch. None of them were at all interested in the humans fawning over them, and there were a few marked tail twitches to indicate their dissatisfaction with the whole setup. The pair at the table behind us were making small talk and it sounded like a first date. A brood of children and their parents eventually came in, and compared to the kids’ rather aggressive and unrelenting attention, I think the animals came to appreciate my pathetic but respectful beckoning.

Joy Ross-Jones’ mask show, Elsewhere, is an exploration of identity through the unfolding economic and political crisis in Joy’s home country of Venezuela. There have been ongoing protests against the government for the widespread poverty across the country after price controls and the massive devaluation of Venezuela’s currency led to food shortages. The government is also accused of absconding with the profits of several key nationalised industries in Venezuela, including the struggling oil industry, which the Venezuelan economy relies on. The current political climate has been decades in the making, and Joy recollects growing up during the Chavez Presidency. “There was a period of 4 months when I didn’t go to school because the whole country was on strike,” she says, “Grocery stores would be open for a few hours a day, the gas station would be open every couple days, so, you’d wait in line for your gas. But it was a time of great unity,” she remarks. “People were visibly manifesting their disagreement.”

Our order arrives, and Joy’s fruit bowl comes with whipped cream. She puts a dollop in her coffee and encourages me to do the same. “When I first moved to Canada, I loved whipped cream in a can. I’d feed it directly into my mouth,” she laughs. “They gave us two forks, they want us to share,” she says, gesturing to the whipped cream. I do as she suggests. Why not? Life is too short for black coffee, and the only thing better than milk is cream, and the only thing better than cream is whipped cream.

Joy tells me a story about her Uncle, who was hit by a car in Venezuela. Her uncle was seriously injured, and needed to get to a hospital to have an operation done. The operation was a success, but only after Joy’s “firecracker” of an aunt sourced his medication from a relative in Colombia. “My uncle was discharged the same day as the operation because the hospital didn’t have any water.” Joy says simply, “Everything’s short. What there used to be plenty of, there’s absolutely nothing of.”

A cat, of the luxurious toilet-paper advertisement variety, white with big blue eyes, has deigned to sit on a chair behind me, about two centimeters out of reach. Another grey sort of cat saunters by, gracefully contorting its spine towards the ground in a U-shape to avoid my touch. I make a joke about not handling rejection well, and it becomes funny. We might as well laugh.

Joy revels in finding the joke, the silver lining, or if nothing else, the coping mechanism, that allows for life to go on even in times of crisis. The FRINGE program even makes use of the word “absurd” to describe the show. “So, the play is also about balancing positivity and making the most out of a bad situation and not letting it diminish your vivaciousness, your aliveness,” she pauses. “It doesn’t and it can’t. We’ve got to talk about how crazy adaptable human beings are.”

Using mask was a decision Joy and her director, Christina Cugliandro, made together. “I had thought about grotesque clown or buffon to play political characters, so there was always an element of heightened, of non-realistic performance,” Joy says. The idea to use mask was partly inspired by I, Claudia, the majorly successful one-woman show by Canadian artist Kirsten Thompson. “I got really inspired by the way she did that and the way it allowed her to transpose herself into so many different characters.”

 In fact, Joy plays no less than six different characters ranging from a beauty queen to an ex-pat, a protester to a cop, most of whom are experiencing and reacting to the current situation in Venezuela. “The characters are based on the archetypes of the masks, and I just started improvising with the masks to see what would happen, based on my knowledge and understanding of the culture that was in me,” she explains. “I’m talking about absolutely horrific things based on family stories or things I see on the news, and things my uncle who’s is still living there tells me. And the stories are hilarious!” She stops herself, “Well, not all of them but they crack me up anyway. And that’s life, right?”

Of those characters, the only one who lives outside Venezuela is loosely based on Joy herself. “She has nothing really to do with me,” Joy explains, “but she asks my questions.”  Through these characters, Joy is able to explore her relationship to her Venezuelan identity, which she talks about very frankly, and with a certain amount of lamentation. “I’ve always known that I was going to leave Venezuela,” she says sadly. “It was kind of like I was waiting to grow up to come here.” Before my eyes, I see Joy struggling to reconcile her present self, working through belonging, with herself at a younger age, idealistic and unrealistic about living in Canada. She is so frank during our interview, I would be amazed if neither her performance and her answers during the show’s talkback portion are any less honest.

Joy hopes that audience members will be able to “find the tension between the levity and the weight” and that the play will, for lack of a better term, put a human face on a conflict that feels so far away. “I hope that audience members who don’t know what’s going on will be able to identify with the stories a little more proximally with the people who are experiencing it. That’s one of the reasons I called it Elsewhere,” Joy explains. “Those issues through media can get really dehumanized, even though it is a human crisis and you see people dying. You can’t get close because its too painful,” she says, earnestly. “So, maybe this will allow people to feel something and get a little closer.”

You can buy tickets for Elsewhere here. The show runs from June 1st – 8th at the Rialto Studio.

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