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
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.