Thursday, 11 April 2013

God and the Indian is very timely viewing

How does one parse evil? What the Oxford Compact Thesaurus differentiates as villainy, degeneracy, and immorality -vs- barbarity, atrocity, monstrosity.  The Canadian residential schools nightmare -vs- Eichmann’s death camps. One “may”, but one “can’t” win that debate. Without saying so expressly, that is one subtext of Drew Hayden Taylor’s play that had its international premiere last night at the Firehall Arts Centre. Evil is as evil does. It does not parse.

The plot is simple. Rev. George King, an Anglican priest, has been promoted to Assistant Bishop in an urban diocese. The morning after the party celebrating his annunciation he stops at a downtown Tim Horton’s for a cup of  coffee. There he is spotted by “Johnny Indian”, a native panhandler who follows him back to his offices. Johnny confronts King and accuses him of being the teacher from St. Mark’s Residential School who sexually abused and raped her, repeatedly, when she was just 12.

The play proceeds in the manner of an intervention : Johnny (Tantoo Cardinal) attempts to get King (Michael Kopsa) to confess to his 40-year-old crimes, which for 120 minutes he denies, then confesses, obliquely, sort of – always as a churchy fellow, not a person. Married, teen kids, loving wife, this is an ugly and visceral confrontation. George hasn't faced anything like it in his life. That he perhaps is guilty of causing equal or worse pain to another years back he refuses to face. 

The dialogue flips back-&-forth between the two with Assistant Bishop King rhyming off institutional cant and stock denials of any personal complicity or guilt. Johnny, by contrast, wants to optimize this chance meeting, have it lead to her healing. When ABK asks her who she is in the opening moments, she responds : “Who I am today, that is quite a question…!”  The depth of her meaning is lost on the man of the cloth.

Indian is directed by Renae Morriseau, herself of aboriginal stock, who says the play “…takes us on a journey of layered meaning where compassion, reconciliation and the boundaries placed upon forgiveness are explored and developed.” Taylor’s script certainly does just that for the viewers, and the result as a play is very successful, rewarding and relevant. The meta-play between Johnny and King doesn’t achieve resolution, however, because words cannot band-aid experiences. Abuse is not a boo-boo.

King : “I know it’s in vogue to sue the Church for all sorts of wrongful actions, but there has to be some basis of truth and evidence involved. We’re not handing out blank cheques or apologies to whoever walks in the door.”  Johnny : I don’t want any money. Or an apology. No, acknowledgement…that I’m me. Me! I’m Sammy’s sister. I am my parent’s child. I don’t want to be a ghost anymore. I want to exist. To be seen. To be noticed. To be acknowledged. By you and what you’ve done.”  King :  I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

At this point, Johnny pulls a gun out of her bag and aims it at King. Obviously frightened he tells her to put the gun down : “If you do that, I will erase this whole thing from my memory, and you can go on your way. No harm done.”  Johnny : “’No harm done.’ You have a bad habit of picking the wrong phrases. Actually you had a lot of bad habits. Oh I know you tried to ‘save the child by killing the Indian’, but I think some of it managed to hide out somewhere, behind my brown eyes, under my black hair, or beneath my thick skin. Killing an entire people can take a lot of time. I guess 10 years wasn’t long enough.”  Some might argue the “no harm done” line a bit convenient and ham-handed, but in the context of a completely failed communication between "patriarch" and "supplicant", I say it works.

For the balance of the play we see Johnny agonize whether to commit suicide with the pistol and its one bullet she claims it has, or to kill King. In the end, King disarms Johnny by abusing her anew with a direct sensory memory of oranges, oranges that were used at St. Mark’s as Christmas gifts or bribes for sexual favours. Johnny relinquishes the gun and sighs heavily, despondently. She grasps once more what has been her lifelong intuitive wisdom : “There’s nothing for me here.” As for the lost chance to end either King’s life or her own, she adds, resignedly : “Wanting and having are two different things.”

No, how to reconcile Jesus’s challenge of “Suffer the little children to come unto me” with the church’s history of harming and abusing children in the name of Christ will never happen between Johnny and Assistant Bishop King. It can’t. Because words will never deconstruct acts. The diktat of the Christian religion has always debased what the Jew carpenter stood for and meant spiritually, symbolically and existentially, Taylor suggests forcefully.

This play works. It is convincing and compelling on many levels. With the First Nation Truth and Reconciliation Commission winding up its mandate to hear from abused former school residents and their elders, children and children’s children, God and the Indian is a poignant reminder of the reality of residential schools’ 140 year run in Canada at the hands of organized religion (Catholic, Anglican, United and its predecessors) as well as at the hands of parliament through The Gradual Civilization Act [sic] of 1857 and subsequently the Indian Act and amendments thereto.

Doubly compelling a play for Vancouver because of the recently released findings of the Oppal Commission into the slaughter of dozens of missing DTES women, many aboriginal, at the hands of Robert Picton and the role, or lack thereof, of the various suburban police bureaucracies to end the killing spree years earlier. That Firehall Arts Centre is situated right in the heart of DTES at Gore and Cordova where sex trade workers continue to ply the streets makes the juxtaposition all the more poignant. 

The set and lighting design by Lauchlin Johnson are very effective for the diminutive Firehall stage : Assistant Bishop King’s office with backlit projections of a stark residential school bed all amuss; wooden snow shoes; large first-growth birch trees; crates of oranges. Costumes designed by Alex Danard capture well the disconnect between the “man of God” from the church and the “woman of spirit” who lives off the street. The soundscape by Morriseau and Marcos Amaya-Torres is a clever blend of Anglican hymn, Indian drumbeats, and innocent children playing.

As Johnny, Tantoo Cardinal – a Cree/Metis and veteran of some 80 credits from “Dancing With Wolves” to “Black Robe” to “North of 60” to “Moccasin Flats” – turns in a nuanced and idiosyncratic portrayal of a 50-something street person wracked by physical and spiritual torment with just the right shakiness of voice and hand and awkward limp one would expect from a woman suffering her traumas. Assistant Bishop King by Michael Kopsa is nearly 100% objectionable in his unctuous persona – which demonstrates his complete grasp of the role including both its physical and spiritual arthritis.

This is a trenchant, timely, and terrific take on the gulf between members of alienated aboriginal communities and the contemporary commercial world of all us "others". You will come away satisfied that Artistic Director Donna Spencer's challenge to viewers in the program notes has been achieved : "Enjoy, question, and consider !"

Background note #1 :  From University of Manitoba prĂ©cis highlighting its Leah Carritt Collection on the Brandon Indian Residential School (1936) :

The Canadian parliament administrated the enculturation of Indigenous peoples across Canada with compulsory attendance for children aged 6 to 15 and Christian based curriculum which forbade traditional knowledge and languages. This process of enculturation has been largely referred to as “Killing the Indian, saving the child”. Due to major under-funding from churches and the federal government, the upkeep and subsistence of the residential school depended on the forced labor of students. The compulsory residential school system lasted until 1948 and official closings of residential schools occurred into the 1990s. Residential schools varied in their corporal treatment towards the students, which has culminated in mixed emotions about individual experiences, though overwhelmingly the residential school program has been condemned by Indigenous people and regretted by portions of the Canadian government. The first official state apology to Indigenous peoples over the abuses incurred at residential schools was made in 1998, followed by an open inquiry into individual and community experience through a Truth and Reconciliation program beginning in 2006.

Background note #2 :  From the University of British Columbia’s Indigenous Foundations website :

The residential school system is viewed by much of the Canadian public as part of a distant past, disassociated from today’s events. In many ways, this is a misconception. The last residential school [in BC] did not close its doors until 1986. Many of the leaders, teachers, parents, and grandparents of today’s Aboriginal communities are residential school survivors. There is, in addition, an intergenerational effect: many descendents of residential school survivors share the same burdens as their ancestors even if they did not attend the schools themselves. These include transmitted personal trauma and compromised family systems, as well as the loss in Aboriginal communities of language, culture, and the teaching of tradition from one generation to another.

According to the Manitoba Justice Institute, residential schools laid the foundation for the epidemic we see today of domestic abuse and violence against Aboriginal women and children. Generations of children have grown up without a nurturing family life. As adults, many of them lack adequate parenting skills and, have only experienced abuse, in turn abuse their children and family members. This high incidence of domestic violence among Aboriginal families results in many broken homes, perpetuation the cycle of abuse and dysfunction over generations.

Many observers have argued that the sense of worthlessness that was instilled in students by the residential school system contributed to extremely low self-esteem. This has manifested itself in self-abuse, resulting in high rates of alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide. Among First Nations people aged 10 to 44, suicide and self-inflicted injury is the number one cause of death, responsible for almost 40 percent of mortalities. First Nations women attempt suicide eight times more often than other Canadian women, and First Nations men attempt suicide five times more often than other Canadian men. Some communities experience what have been called suicide epidemics.

Note on the playwright : Drew Hayden Taylor billboards himself as "the blue-eyed Ojibway". Originally from Curve Lake First Nations in central Ontario decades back, Taylor considers humour his primary metier as playwright, essayist and speaker promoting aboriginal issues and causes. Asked at Opening Night by this reviewer why he deviated from his usual humour to write God and the Indian, he replied : "As a challenge. A friend asked whether I had it in me to write something serious, so I decided to tackle the most serious subject involving Canadian aboriginal people that I could think of. Residential schools. That's it." 


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