Saturday 23 February 2019

Children of God is a triumph of dramatic ceremony
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

The current news and controversy surrounding hereditary Kwakwaka-wakw MP Jody Wilson-Raybould has once more catapulted indigenous (Indian; first nation; aboriginal; native) issues onto the national stage. As did Gord Downie's 2016 concept album "Secret Path" about residential school runaway 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack.  In October 1966 he died from exposure and malnutrition while trying desperately to trek the 600 kms. from his Kenora "prison" back to the family's Ojibwe home on a reserve in north central Ontario.

Try to imagine blending such tales as Chanie's into a musical. Telling stories of the horrors and abuses and the traumas of the residential school system that for 150 years tried to colonialize and assimilate this country's native school children. The whippings. Water hosing. Rapes. Abortions. Suicides. 

Corey Payette's dramatic and powerful music script is an attempt to seek rapprochement and entente from this tragic chapter in Canada's history. But not, importantly, just by reaching out to the country's white churches to flagellate themselves anew with collective guilt. 

Also to speak truths to the native communities that continue to suffer cultural confusion, discrimination, and denial. Speak to them, too, about how compulsory it is for everyone to embrace Robert Frost's forest dictum : "The only way out is through." Himself of Cree-Ojibwe blood, Payette felt he needed to strike a unique pathway into, and out of, this tortuous thicket.

To demonstrate how serious he is about the need for truce and harmony, playwright Corey Payette closes his remarkable show with both native victims and churchy oppressors joining voice to sing of hope for a new future for all. 
Photo credit Emily Cooper
While the original 2017 version of God was by-&-large a blow-up of its original workshop version, the 2019 show now on at the York Theatre is, simply, stupendous. A visual and audial spiritual ceremony that is as much an expiation ritual as it is a stage musical with obvious roots that dig back dramatically and indebtedly to the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar and Jacques Brel.

The storyline is fundamentally simple. Local RCMP across the land rounded up native children with the persuasion of their sidearms and wrested them from their families. In Payette's version, mom tries to visit daughter-&-son at their segregated encampment, only to be turned away at the playground gate. The priest and the nun running the school never once tell the kids mom had come, time and again, to see them in the decade or more they were held there. 

The kids thus felt they'd been abandoned by everyone other than themselves who surreptitiously cling together by sneaking out after curfew. In the adjacent field they laugh and cavort and picnic with scraps from the dormitory cafeteria plus fresh apples from the school orchard. Also plan, again and again, how they'd escape. Become "runners" as Fr. Christopher calls them. And speak in what the Bible calls "tongues", only this time not just nonsense words but syllables scrounged from memory of their homegrown Ojibwe. 

And such is what sustained them : their acts of rebellion, acts of truth, acts of reconciliation with their gruesome plight that Payette refers to repeatedly as "settler colonialism" [but, curiously, doesn't once mention its core vice : patriarchy.] 

So somehow all of this in a musical ? Payette explains about the "weird pairing" of residential school trauma stories with a songfest of choreography : "For indigenous people, that's the way we have always told stories. It's always been the case that musicals have a close link to indigenous culture, where you cannot share a story without a song, you cannot share a song without a dance, or with that dance telling a story. That beautiful circle is the same thing that's experienced in musical theatre."

Judging from earlier reviews from the Vancouver and Ottawa 2017 shows, the current mount has gone through remarkable transformations. This is now a blend of ballads redolent of Ann Mortifee in Jacques Brel to the soliloquy laments and torments of Jesus in Superstar. Also embracing all-group choral numbers, particularly the closing anthem that finds actors, stage crew and audience all holding hands singing Hi Yeah Hi Yeah Hi Yah Yah Yah together, an ersatz Ojibwe chant modernized and harmonized by Mr. Payette. 

As noted, there is power galore in this piece. As Mom Rita, Michelle St. John evinces both guilt and its alter ego dominance in her dealings with son Tom (Dillan Chiblow). He is now an adult back living at home, jobless, a drunk estranged from his wife and two sons. St. John's singing authority was compelling, particularly in the lengthy duet with Tom to lift up sister Julia's spirit at show's end. Altogether first-rate vocal choreography by the entire cast the night through.

Speaking of fancy footwork, there is a circle theme repeated centre stage throughout with all the actors doing whirligig twirls around one another. Often this scenario is used for costume switches between the epochs being acted out, also to demonstrate how we all must come full circle on our respective identities and join in the dance together if Canada (Kanata) is to survive as one, holistically, an amalgam of settlers and natives -- both -- whatever our true colours.

Production designer Marshall McMahen's backdrop scrim was a sculptural delight, morphing from moody black mountains and mists to bright orange sunrises. His visuals blended seamlessly with orchestrator Elliot Vaughan's direction of Mr. Payette's mostly minor-key moodiness of cello, viola, piano and guitar that underscored the stage action. Built upon native original music tropes, the score is harmonized to fall more gently on the suburban ear than the often high-pitched atonal choruses featured in many aboriginal arrangements. 

To single out excellence in the actors' performances would be superfluous and redundant. Sharp turns for each and every character both singly and in their joint routines (the Lone Ranger sequence to kick off Act 2 by the men of particular note).

Many remarked at the talk-back after the show how "the first step is to be witness" to this dark time stretching back since before Confederation, this misguided social engineering exercise to annul 10, 000 years and more of native tradition. 

The experience is not just Canadian. Whether it's the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uyghur in China or name-any-other, whenever attempts are made to annul ethnic-cultural identities, particularly by conscription and detention, the results are grim and ugly.

Go see Children of God to witness how music weaves a tapestry of interconnectedness that words alone simply cannot. As noted above, it's as much a ceremony and a ritual cleansing as it is authentic musical drama of the first magnitude. This show is one that gives up a wallop of dramatic impact & musical variety & character nuance borne of abject pain. But ultimately it signals hope and healing and heartfelt intercultural union among all of Canada's myriad colours and voices whatever their origin.
Particulars : Presented by The Cultch as part of the Talking Stick Fesitval, in collaboration with Urban Ink (Vancouver) theatre and the Segal Centre (Montreal). Book, Musioc, Lyrics and Director: Corey Payette. Produced at the York Theatre, 639 Commercial Drive. On untilMarch 10, 2019Tickets & schedule information by phone at 604.251.1363 or hit The CultchRun-time two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.

Production team :  Production Designer Marshall McMahen. Original Music Director Alan Cole.  Production Musical Director David Terriault. Orchestrator Elliot Vaughan.  Associate Director Julie McIsaac. Lighting Designer Jeff Harrison.  Associate Lighting Designer Bryan Kenney. Original Sound Designer Kris Boyd. Projection Sound Designer Kyra Soko. Stage Manager Chantal Hayman.  Assistant Stage Manager Jethelo E. Cabilete.  Production Fight Director Mike Kovac.  

Performers :  Michelle Bardach (Joanna/Secretary).  Sarah Carle (Sister Bernadette). Dillan Chiblow (Tom/Tommy).  David Keeley (Father Christopher). Jacob MacInnes (Vincent). Cheyenne Scott (Julia). Michelle St. John  (Rita). Aaron M. Wells (Wilson). Kaitlyn Yott (Elizabeth / Fight captain). 

Orchestra : Piano / Music Director David Terriault.  Cello Doug Gorkoff.  Viola Elliot Vaughan. Guitar Martin Reisle.

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