A musical about Residential Schools. The beauty of works in the musical genre, from my perspective, is that they have the ability to transcend the bounds of the theatre in ways most other kinds of productions cannot to become cultural phenomena. They can bridge the gap between addressing things that remain unspoken in popular society, and still appeal to the populist mass-media consciousness that pervades it without alienating the people who most need to hear the message. The taste of Hamilton still lingers on society’s taste buds in a pleasant sort of way that is still novel in that particular iteration, and more needed than ever. And now the NAC English Theatre presents Children of God, in collaboration with a pair of BC theatre companies (UrbanInk, Raven Theatre) and Canada Scene.
In the context of the lead up to a birthday-party for our nation-state that has an historical and contemporary record of horrible oppression and discrimination against the Indigenous peoples of the land it occupies, the largest presenting house in Canada’s capital presents a piece, written, composed, and performed by Indigenous artists that takes an unflinching step towards the reconciliation that is needed between our peoples. This piece is already a significant embodiment of the kind of work necessary for meaningful reconciliation to occur. But it is not simply that. If it were, because the work of reconciliation falls to all the humans who call this land home. It is also (yet) an(other) invitation by the Indigenous artists who have made it to take up the work of reconciliation.
Please don’t be tired of this word, because we have only just set out on it; there is a long way to go on the road. Canada turns 150 years old this year, but the history of oppression of Native peoples in this country stretches back more than 400 years. I would hazard a guess that it will likely take 400 more years to truly reconcile these injustices. The project is bigger than any of us can imagine.
Now that I have installed the context prominently at the start of this, because we must acknowledge where we are and where we’ve come from before we can make any meaningful changes, I will begin to talk about the production itself.
And I will begin with my first impressions of the stage itself, which has been transformed into an incredible sweeping cloudscape, reaching from the “shale” outcrop on the stage-left deck, all the way across the stage and up to the stage right balcony. This canvas is painted in greys so subtle they might be a trick of the light, and is used to great atmospheric and contextual effect by an ever-changing palette of lights that make them glow like real clouds. I can’t emphasize enough how powerful this simple and striking choice is aesthetically, and moreover, it makes for really interesting moments when characters are visible from the knees down, in a sort of haunting, where they can be heard, but mostly not seen.
The lighting design had a few really strong moments, emphasizing the power of some of the scripted moments, but I found the immense lighting playground that had been built into the set a touch under-utilized.
One of the most interesting choices in the musical composition in this piece is the choice to place all the percussion instruments on stage in the hands of the Indigenous characters. The group of musicians side-stage, (Allen Cole on piano, Elliott Vaughn on Viola, Brian Chan on cello, and Martin Reisle on guitar), who create most of the instrumental soundscape of the production for the musical numbers do not count a percussionist among them. The absence from the quartet of the percussion piece, which normally forms the anchor for contemporary music, is a powerful symbolic choice that places the heart of the play’s music visibly on stage in the hands of Cathy Elliott’s Rita, the Indigenous mother.
Musically, Children of God is evocative and stirring. It doesn’t have a catchy pop hook that you’ll hear being sung and parodied for the next year and a half, but it strikes all the right notes for the play itself, and I truly hope that the final song does manage to catch and spread like fire through society.
The play itself follows a sort of split story line. In the first, there are two trios of residential school youth, three boys, three girls, each focused on Tommy (Herbie Barnes) and his sister Julia (Cheyenne Scott), who occupy a shared reality on the school grounds with the nun and priest in charge of their care. In the second timeline Tommy is a grown man, 20 years a survivor of the Residential school, trying to secure a job. As might be expected, these two timelines run forward in alternating chunks, each informing and providing insight into the action taking place in the other, and culminate in a one-two punch that literally makes the audience cry out. In general, the acting is capable and honest, and the vocal work done by the singers carries the emotion of the piece with ease. I found Joanna, played by Kim Harvey particularly strong and vivid.
The piece makes great use of the theatrical medium in its storytelling. The climactic moments in the residential school aren’t graphic, but they are extremely powerful. If anything, in fact, I thought that the scene at the conclusion of act one, which sets the stage for the crumbling of the first timeline and is the true beginning of the second, over a little quickly. It might be worth stretching out that choreography to really make the audience look at what is going on, and give them a moment for it to settle into their awareness before the act ends.
This thought brings me back out, to think about the larger implications of a work like this. We all need to spend more time thinking about the reality of events that took place in residential schools, and the cultural genocide that continues to be perpetrated by settler-Canadians on the Indigenous people of this land. This piece makes another step on the long journey towards reconciliation, but as we discover when it comes to the post show discussion – not really a talk-back, but rather a safe-space Q&A with the artists on stage about how we might best take action as individuals – there is a lot of work to be done by all of us. Particularly those of us with the privilege granted by a settler heritage.
So what can we do? Kim Harvey suggests that the first thing we should all do is read and familiarize ourselves with the 94 calls to action set out by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We can be aware of and eliminate the micro-oppressions we perpetrate in our language, by othering Indigenous people. We can work to see the human being inside of all the social circumstances that have conspired to create the niche we each occupy. We can recognize that the place of “success” or “not success” that we each occupy is also determined largely by things outside of our control. We can stop seeing “successful” people as gods, and “non-successful” people as dirt. We can vote for and advocate with all levels of government who support policies and actions that work in favour of reconciliation. We can be decent human beings, and recognize that this doesn’t mean saving anyone, but rather ceasing to oppress, and working towards our collective empowerment as humans living together on this planet.
Children of God runs through Sunday June 18 at the NAC’s theatre.
A Musical by Corey Payette
Herbie Barnes (Tom/Tommy)
Cathy Elliott (Rita)
Kim Harvey (Joanna/Secretary)
Trish Lindstrom (Sister Bernadette)
Kevin Loring (Wilson)
Cheyenne Scott (Julia)
Michael Torontow (Father Christopher)
Aaron M. Wells (Vincent)
Kaitlyn Yott (Elizabeth)
Corey Payette (Bookwriter/Composer/Lyricist/Director)
Marshall McMahen (Production Designer)
Allen Cole (Musical Director/Piano)
Elliott Vaughn (Orchestration/Viola)
Sybille Pearson (Dramaturg)
Julie McIsaac (Associate Director)
Jeff Harrison (Lighting Designer)
Raes Calvert (Movement Director)
Kris Boyd (Sound Designer)
Mike Kovac (Co-Fight Director)
Ryan McNeill Bolton (Co-Fight Director)
Samira Rose (Stage Manager)
Jessica Schacht (Assistant Stage Manager)
Helen Oro (Jewelry Designer)
Brian Chan (Cello)
Martin Reisle (Guitar)