Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s Gas Girls

For this piece, Will Goldbloom, a theatre historian, and Zack Russell, a theatre artist, read Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s Gas Girls, published in 2011 by Playwrights Canada Press. They wrote up their thoughts separately, then the TRB recorded their first conversation about the play.
Listen to their discussion:
[audio: issuetwo/willzack.mp3]


“Love for gas, gas for cash, cash for living, living for love.” This circular refrain, repeated throughout Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s Gas Girls, summarizes the trajectories of the play’s characters and emulates the monotony of the story. In the borderlands of Zimbabwe, two teenage girls, Gigi and Lola, solicit highway truck drivers for sex in exchange for gas, which their broker and pimp Chickn converts to cash. Gigi, the mature one, resembles the stock character in reality television whose sheer ruthlessness, usually expressed with the phrase “I’m not here to make friends,” spells their demise. She performs her job without frills (“no cuddling up”) and is determined to find normative happiness (stability, a husband). Lola, the doe-eyed newbie, finds solace in her seemingly grim predicament and maintains a veneer of innocence as she slowly usurps Gigi’s command over the business.

The play reads as though we are watching two characters on an isolated hamster wheel; one persistently running in the same spot until she collapses and the other blissfully hanging on for the ride. This should not necessarily preclude any sense of urgency or intrigue. Indeed, gas is a brilliant metaphor of the potential for limitless opportunity and complete destruction that exists in any transaction. The most exciting scenes are when we see the dramatic properties of this liquid — its lingering smells, its repulsive taste and its function as a source for deathly and curative fires. But this is the play’s only source of theatrical fuel. Moreover, the token allusion to HIV in mentioning the conflict between condoms and the church, the inconsistent use of a crudely invented dialect that replaces ‘th’ with ‘d,’ and the stereotypical depiction of impoverished African women dreaming of a brighter future should have prevented its Governor General’s award nomination. Although some have praised this play for presenting women’s oppression in a way that can be applied to numerous contexts, versatility can also be a precursor to banality. Aside from the gas, there is nothing particularly engaging about these girls.


Donna Michelle St. Bernard had never been to Africa at the time she wrote Gas Girls. In the forward to the play, Yvette Nolan makes a point of mentioning this fact, and then dismissing it as unimportant. But is it? Gas Girls was inspired by stories of women along the Zimbabwe border who trade sex for gas. Before the play begins, we are told “characters speak in a dialect unique to this play as opposed to one derived from a specific geography.” In an interview with Now Magazine, Bernard explains “the story comes from Zimbabwe, but it’s not specifically set there, since I’ve never visited the country… the play is part of a mission for me – to look at Africa not as a monolithic continent but rather a collection of 54 countries.” Yet Gas Girls fails to deliver anything beyond a clichéed Africa. The characters are two-dimensional, and the thin plot consists of a role-reversal between the Gigi and Lola, the two leads. The ‘dialect’ they speak is a broken, grammatically incorrect English (“I been done this lots of times”). It seems particularly unnecessary given that it doesn’t reflect any real dialect. If anything, it will allow Canadian theatre-goers to further distance themselves from the suffering Africans onstage.

Reading the play, reminded me of Kenyan writer Binyayvanga Wainaina’s article How To Write about Africa that appeared in Granta a few years ago.In a wonderfully sardonic essay, Wainaina offers his ‘guidance’ to writers:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African… She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering… Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket…

Unfortunately Gas Girls seems to have heeded Wainaina’s advice.

Will Goldbloom finished his MA in history at York University in 2011. His thesis examined the development of Canadian theatre culture in the 20th century. He currently works as a Community Facilitator for individuals with acquired brain injuries.

Zack Russell is a theatre director from Toronto. His latest piece, Just Cause, played at the Flea Theatre in New York last May.

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