It’s been 10 years in the making but Col Cseke is finally ready to bring his unique theatre experience about temporary foreign workers to life on stage.
Cseke spent almost a decade collecting the true-life experiences of people in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program knowing that one day he would tell their stories.
The result is Parts & Labour, a live documentary-style theatre production where actors re-enact the real people and experiences Cseke had been collecting all those years. Directed by Mieko Ouchi, the play runs from July 1 to 9 at West Village Theatre.
Humble beginnings a decade ago
It all started in 2012 when Cseke was working on a different theatre project with at-risk youth, and one of the young actors in the play came to Canada with her family as a refugee.
“Both of her parents worked at the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River,” he explains, adding he got to know the family and started to hear the stories about what was happening with foreign and migrant workers at meat-packing plants.
“The stories were pretty shocking. That’s where I first sort of encountered some of these stories. I thought they were important to be shared publicly, and that’s what really led me down this path.”
The stories behind the names
Parts & Labour includes the story of the butcher in Mexico who checked the label of the beef he was selling, discovering it was made in Brooks, Alberta. He left it all to come here and start a new career at the plant, sending the meat back to whoever took over his butcher shop.
“The show is centred around temporary foreign workers who are working at these meat-packing plants in Alberta, and the show is told through their own words, verbatim,” he says, adding the butcher from Mexico is a central figure.
“The details of how he found out about the plant in Brooks and how he got here was astounding.”
As his story is told, audiences learn about the “literal backbreaking work” the man suffered. He needed back surgery in the hospital and spent months in physiotherapy trying to come back from his injury.
“The permanent injury came out of the intensity of the labour that he was doing at the plant,” Cseke adds.
Highlighting the perils of the pandemic
The play was originally scheduled for 2020, but the pandemic forced it to shutter, giving Cseke a chance to collect even more stories with the backdrop of COVID.
“We talked specifically to folks who were working at the plants while the massive COVID outbreaks were happening. There was a lot of news coverage of those outbreaks and this is a chance to get the emotional story of folks who were in the eye of that storm.”
The Cargill meat plant in High River, Alberta was the site of one of the largest COVID outbreaks in 2020 with over 1,500 employees becoming infected and at least three deaths.
One of the most compelling people Cseke ever met was a dedicated man from the Philippines who continued to work hard over the early days of the pandemic, tragically bringing the virus home.
“He passed it on to his elderly father who was visiting from the Philippines and [he] ended up passing away from the virus… A first-person account of that emotional experience is just beyond remarkable, getting to hear in his own words what those few weeks were like.”
30 stories from 30 people
There are 30 stories shared by 30 different people, including workers, community organizers, politicians, “and residents of Brooks reflecting on how their community has changed quite drastically over the last couple of decades.”
Over his research, Cseke realized the meat-packing industry hasn’t had a moment of peace and is one of the most difficult industries to work in due to its laborious nature.
“There’s always some major event happening, whether it’s a moratorium on foreign workers, or a strike threat, or a large-scale COVID outbreak,” he says.
“And then there’s these more personal, untold victories and tragedies happening in people’s lives every day — their strength and commitment shine through in ways that I find really remarkable.”
Bringing those stories to life on stage
Cseke decided to present Parts & Labour in a documentary-style live play.
“I love documentary theatre, which is a unique style that combines the power of authentic stories with the delight of seeing talented actors embody a wide range of characters on stage,” Cseke explains, adding the real-life stories were more remarkable than anything he could have written.
He hopes audiences can take in the stories and see the humans that are at the centre of the production.
“As much as this is a grand, massive story of international migration and labour and federal law, ultimately… it highlights the humans at the centre of those stories and the inherent human value that they’re bringing to our communities here in Alberta.”
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