Review: God and the Indian, Firehall Arts Centre, until May 30

http://firehallartscentre.ca/onstage/god-indian/

I had seen God and the Indian two years ago at the Firehall, so I was looking forward to this remount. Briefly, you should go.

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On the way to the Firehall, my fellow attendee asked me about the play and about residential schools. I started to answer from my reading and what I have heard. One seat over on the Skytrain, a Saskatchewan Cree residential school survivor interjected, and he started telling us about his experiences at the last school in Saskatchewan to close, which did not shut its doors until the late 1990s. He told us about the horrific impact the 10+ years he spent in that torturous place has had on him. I could hardly believe the coincidence. But keep in mind that Duncan Campbell Scott, a Canadian bureaucrat and founder of this genocidal policy, sought to make residential school compulsory for every Native child, starting in 1920 (although residential schools have an even longer history in Canada, dating back to the 1600s in Quebec). So it’s hard to fathom how many children and families have been devastated by this policy.

I am avoiding spoilers, but that means I cannot give you a complete sense of the play. So, please go and see it even if my explanation falls short. A Cree woman who calls herself Johnny happens to spot a teacher from her residential school years as he comes out of a Tim Horton’s. Assistant Bishop George King has climbed the church hierarchy, and has a comfortable life, enjoyable job, and a beautiful family. As for Johnny, life has been different. Lisa C. Ravensbergen does an excellent job of playing Johnny as a woman who has suffered immensely, but is very much alive and funny and sharp, even as she describes horrors. Thomas Hauff, playing George King (might this be a play on King George?), is a patrician Anglican minister whom Johnny accuses of horrific actions. Who do you identify with, Johnny or King? Can you identify with both?

The humour might make you feel a bit guilty. But humour’s role as a survival tactic is well-known. Sit with the discomfort.

One slight criticism of the play is that King’s rhetoric sounds a bit too fundamentalist and Biblically literal for the typical Anglican minister, at least the urban contemporary Vancouver West End version that I know about. However, given that King was a teacher perhaps 40 years ago previous, and a huge part of the residential school experience was to “Christianize” the children (whether the school was United Church, Anglican, or Roman Catholic), this rhetoric is understandable. And King’s dialogue is clearly meant to introduce and explain historical events rather than necessarily following natural conversation (whatever that would be in the circumstances of the play).

Before the play started, Firehall general manager Donna Spencer noted that some audience members might be triggered by the content, and that counsellors were available in the lobby. Before the play, I noted some elders burning sage. This is a tough play, one that playwright Drew Hayden Taylor was challenged to write when someone asked him to write something serious.

There’s also an exhibit in the lobby about the residential school system in Canada, and it’s worth coming a bit early to look through that. Do some research too. It’s easy to forget details like the Canadian government starvation experiments done in residential schools (how can that be, but it was done officially).

I read that this play is loosely based on Death and the Maiden, by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman. I found that interesting, because I had previously seen the play Cativo in Vancouver, which is also loosely based on Death and the Maiden, but I did not make the connection among all three plays. Various countries have had to deal with how to handle perpetrators of horrible crimes, but whose rule has now been overturned. One thing is clear, though–despite the fears of the wrongdoers, personal vengeance is really rare. Very few of the enforcers and maintainers of Canada’s residential school system ever suffered any official punishment for their actions, and I suspect close to zero have ever faced personal retribution. What, if anything, do the perpetrators feel about what they did?

Again, no spoilers here, but I urge you to pay attention to the last couple minutes of the play. Although this was the second time I had seen this work, I missed something important, and my fellow attendee told me about it afterwards.

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