Review by Sasha Singer-Wilson
God and the Indian
Written by Drew Hayden Taylor
Directed by Renae Morriseau
Firehall Arts Centre (in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts)
A moving and meaningful reconciliation drama, God and the Indian asks powerful questions and doesn’t give easy answers. A real-time confrontation between a Cree woman and an Anglican assistant bishop over abuse that happened at a residential school three decades earlier, the play is written by prominent playwright, columnist and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor from the Curve Lake First Nations. God and the Indian is eighty minutes of complexity, heartbreak and a peppering of Taylor’s signature humour. The play premiered in Vancouver in 2013. It’s back for a two-city tour with the original creative team and a new cast, thanks to Firehall Arts Centre and Native Earth Performing Arts.
Dating back to the 1870’s, there were over 130 residential schools across the country up until 1996 when the last one closed. These church-run and government financed schools were built to destroy First Nations, Metis and Inuit heritage through disconnecting children from their parents and severing ties to their cultural heritage. More than 150,000 children were placed in residential schools, and according to Native Earth’s Artistic Director Ryan Cunningham, “Every day, every Canadian will interact with someone who is connected to a survivor”. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada holds its closing events in Ottawa this week, the production is exceedingly timely.
“Johnny Indian” (played with grit and power by Lisa C. Ravensbergen) is panhandling on a new corner when she spots George King (Thomas Hauff, who is unable to match Ravensbergen’s precision). She recognizes George as one of the priests from her time in a residential school. She follows him back to his office (expertly designed by Lauchlin Johnson), where the play takes place. A celebration for his appointment as Assistant Bishop has taken place the night before and the wood paneled room is strewn with streamers, leftover party platters and liquor bottles. Johnson (who also beautifully designed the lights) uses a scrim to give us glimpses into Johnny’s memory. Costumes, designed skillfully by Alex Denard, show the remarkable disparity between Johnny and George.
The disheveled Johnny accuses George of sexual abuse and he staunchly denies her allegations. The central question of the play is presented with a punch— “did he or didn’t he?” Who are we to trust? Much of the play lives in these rich “grey zones”—is Johnny a representation of all of the abused children or is she a singular victim? Is she really there with George or is she a ghost of his shame? Is he guilty of what she accuses him of, or is he guilty of being a bystander? While sometimes the ambiguity in Renae Morriseau’s production is unsatisfying, at other times it forces the audience to grapple with the complexities of memory, trauma and justice and come to our own conclusions.
Despite a too uncertain ending, as I left the theatre (and had a much-needed ceremonial smudging by a Support Worker from the Residential School Survivors Society), I was forced to grapple with how I engage with these painful truths of our country’s history. Walking out of the Firehall and into the Downtown East Side made the story penetrate even more deeply. Cunningham’s words from the program echoed, “Every day, every Canadian will interact with someone who is connected to a survivor”. And what then? How might we best hold space for healing?
God and the Indian invites its audience to wrestle with what it is to accept responsibility as both an offender and a bystander, and face the very much alive ripples of residential schools in our country. Bring a friend and make sure to leave time for a conversation afterwards; you’ll likely need it.
God and the Indian is on at Firehall Arts Centre until May 30th. For tickets and more information, please visit firehallartscentre.ca.
Sasha Singer-Wilson is a Vancouver based and Toronto bred theatre maker and writer. She makes theatrical things with immersive theatre company the blood projects and tiny literary things with these five minutes. Most recently, she wrote My Ocean, a one-person play about a 12-year-old environmentalist, broken homes, and finding hope in our uncertain future. Sasha is an Associate Producer of Brave New Play Rites and is an MFA candidate in Playwriting at The University of British Columbia.