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Drama examines system behind child-abuse headlines

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

LAWRENCE — Darren Canady's latest play, "Ontario Was Here," is torn from today's headlines of child abuse and neglect, but it goes beyond them to ask what is the cost to those on the front lines charged with protecting society's most vulnerable.

"Ontario Was Here" opened Feb. 10 and continues through March 4 at the Aurora Theatre in suburban Atlanta. It's a different facet of Canady's ongoing dramatic inquiry into the (in)justice system. It follows his 2017 premiere, "Black Butterflies," set among teenage girls in a reform school, staged by the San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater. Canady is an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas and the author now of more than a dozen plays.

The titular character of his new one-act play, 7-year-old Ontario, is never seen on stage. Rather, the dramatic conflict occurs between Penni and Nathan, two Kansas City social workers charged with his care. And while this area has had many notorious cases of abuse and neglect, Canady said it was an incident in New York a few years ago that was a catalyst for "Ontario Was Here." In that case, a child who had been returned by the foster-care system to his birth mother wound up dead as the result of neglect.

"The discussion turned against the social workers, and there became a lot of blaming of the social-welfare system," Canady said.

Canady said he spoke to social workers he knows as the play took shape in his mind, talking about the day-to-day grind faced by well-meaning bureaucrats caught in an underfunded, overworked system.

Or as Penni puts it in the play, "Ev'ry flippin' day is just always - high-stakes high-stakes high-stakes, life and death, life and death, life and death. It's not a job - it's a tour of duty."

Canady said he talked to lawyers - and read two states' orientation handbooks for family-service workers - in an attempt at verisimilitude.

Not that there's any lack of dramatic heat. The two actors - and the two actors alone - are onstage the entire time, often exchanging and overlapping lines rapid-fire.

"Ontario Was Here" makes the audience question the extent to which Penni and Nathan's professional arguments are sincere and how much they are complicated by a past romantic relationship between the two caseworkers.

Without giving anything away, the play also deals with the burnout many social workers experience.

"I read the statistic that frontline social workers dealing with families and children had an average career duration of 2.5 to 2.8 years before leaving the profession altogether," Canady said. "When they burn out, they leave the field entirely. That suggests some trauma they associate with the profession, and that was what I was trying to explore in the play."

Photo: Seun Soyemi (left, above) and Brittany Smith star as social workers in Darren Canady’s "Ontario Was Here." Credit: Chris Bartelski/Aurora Theatre.