Per­former dishes on The Only Good In­dian’s shock­ing cos­tume piece

Years-long jour­ney cul­mi­nates in a play that mixes lived In­dige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence, oral his­tory, and even a game

The Georgia Straight - - Arts - > BY JANET SMITH

Panic, dis­com­fort, con­fine­ment: these are just some of the sen­sa­tions play­wright­per­former Donna-michelle St. Bernard has to fight through when she straps on what looks like a sui­cide vest for The Only Good In­dian.

“It’s the cor­rect weight and it’s not com­fort­able at all,” con­fides St. Bernard, a col­lab­o­ra­tor on the project, speak­ing from Toronto. “There’s such a real and present weight.…i’m gen­uinely pro­ject­ing strength and de­ter­mi­na­tion through my panic.”

The provoca­tive new work from Toronto’s Pan­demic The­atre ro­tates three artists in the solo role from May 23 to 27 at the Cultch’s Vancity Cul­ture Lab dur­ing the re­volver Fes­ti­val. And each gives a deeply per­sonal take on themes that were posed to them at the be­gin­ning of the cre­ative process—on top­ics like col­o­niza­tion, labour, and In­dige­nous iden­tity. “As far as I’m con­cerned, Pan­demic is do­ing the most ex­cit­ing po­lit­i­cal work in Cana­dian the­atre right now,” says St. Bernard.

In the crit­i­cally ac­claimed show, St. Bernard, Jivesh Paras­ran, and Tom Arthur Davis work partly from the same script, then di­verge into rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent world-views. For St. Bernard, the mono­logue blends his­tory les­sons about her Caribbean home­land, the Gre­nadines and Gre­nada, with sto­ries of her own fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ences of the revo­lu­tion of 1979 and U.S. in­va­sion of 1983.

And the men­ac­ing cos­tume piece she wears off the top of The Only Good In­dian? “It’s the punch line to ev­ery joke,” she says. “It’s what al­lows us to go on tan­gents, be­cause you never forget why I’m there. So when I start to tell you about a cruise that my grand­mother’s sis­ter went on, the ques­tion is how this is go­ing to re­late back to the vest.” No doubt: she’ll have your un­di­vided at­ten­tion.

So many threads twine to­gether in the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary play Weaving Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion: Our Way that the metaphor of its ti­tle could not be more apt.

On one hand, it’s the fruition of 15 years of work by Van­cou­ver Mov­ing The­atre in the Down­town East­side, where dif­fer­ent projects—from Story Weaving to the Heart of the City Fes­ti­val—have thrown light on the ur­ban In­dige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Weaving Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion: Our Way is the cul­mi­na­tion of a jour­ney, the be­gin­ning of a jour­ney that’s big­ger than us, and a phase of a jour­ney of which we are a part,” says Sa­van­nah Walling, the co­founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor of Van­cou­ver Mov­ing The­atre, in­ter­viewed in a Hast­ings Street cof­fee shop on break from re­hearsal at the nearby Abo­rig­i­nal Friend­ship Cen­tre. She’s sit­ting with cowriter and di­rec­tor Re­nae Mor­riseau, who is of Saulteaux-cree her­itage; the two penned Weaving Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Coast Sal­ish/sahtu Dene writer Rose­mary Ge­orge­son.

Walling adds that the show also weaves in wider events from re­cent years, from the City of Van­cou­ver’s 2014 recog­ni­tion of its lo­ca­tion on un­ceded Abo­rig­i­nal ter­ri­tory to the es­tab­lish­ment of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion: “We felt called upon to re­spond to what was hap­pen­ing.”

But, most im­por­tantly, the pro­duc­tion traces the threads of this city’s di­verse In­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion’s lived ex­pe­ri­ence—through interviews with elders, youth work­shops, the in­put of First Na­tions artists on the project, and more.

That in­put co­a­lesces around the story of the Old One (played by Jonathan Fisher), a man strug­gling with the im­pact of the res­i­den­tial-school sys­tem on his fam­ily and the loss of the fish­ing in­dus­try, his an­ces­tral liveli­hood.

Cut­ting to the heart of the show, Mor­riseau says: “How do we heal from the im­pacts from res­i­den­tial school? How do we raise chil­dren when we weren’t taught to be par­ents at res­i­den­tial schools?

“Weaving Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is about one man’s hope and grief and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with his fam­ily and com­mu­nity,” she con­tin­ues. “It’s about a man try­ing to rec­on­cile with his own grief. He wasn’t taught how to be a fa­ther, and when he fi­nally got out [of res­i­den­tial school], there was a sys­tem that didn’t ac­cept him.”

Along­side that story, there is a Trick­ster (Sam Bob), who plays with and interviews lo­cal, un­scripted In­dige­nous youths on-stage. “These are young peo­ple who are thriv­ing—lan­guage speak­ers and go-get­ters and cul­tural prac­ti­tion­ers in their own lives,” Mor­riseau says, adding that the young voices show hope and re­silience in the face of col­o­niza­tion and the on­go­ing reper­cus­sions of res­i­den­tial schools. “We’re cre­at­ing open­ings for their voices to come through—a place where they can share who they are and what they’re do­ing. And that gives us an op­por­tu­nity to talk about our cul­ture in a good way, rather than the way Canada wants us to.”

Through­out, the youths and per­form­ers will also play the an­cient stick game of sla­hal, which they’ve learned in work­shops pre­ced­ing the pro­duc­tion. The game be­comes a larger metaphor for the jour­ney in the play. As the script says, “It can take ev­ery­thing from you/or give you what you need.…but do we al­ways know what we need?”

Ul­ti­mately, the team has wo­ven a the­atre piece with a struc­ture and process all its own—one that in­ter­twines cul­tural prac­tices, oral his­tory, and lived ex­pe­ri­ence. “We said, ‘How can we change the shape of a the­atri­cal con­struct—a Euro­cen­tric con­struct?’ ” Mor­riseau says.

Preshow weaving demon­stra­tions and post­show talk­ing cir­cles will ac­com­pany per­for­mances here. Then Weaving Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion will tour to other com­mu­ni­ties—first the En’owkin Cen­tre in Pen­tic­ton at the end of the month, then Na­tive Earth Per­form­ing Arts in Toronto and Théâtre Cer­cle Molière in Winnipeg/ St. Boni­face in June. At each stop, youths from nearby na­tions will join the pro­duc­tion.

“We’re hop­ing it will in­spire other jour­neys and start other rip­ples,” Walling says. In other words, the weaving will con­tinue, cre­at­ing an even big­ger fab­ric that reaches far beyond East Van­cou­ver.

Weaving Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion: Our Way runs from Thurs­day to Satur­day (May 17 to 19) and from May 24 to 26 at the Van­cou­ver Abo­rig­i­nal Friend­ship Cen­tre.

Left to right, Sa­van­nah Walling, Rose­mary Ge­orge­son, and Re­nae Mor­riseau com­bined forces to write Weaving Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion: Our Way. David Cooper photo.

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