At The York Theatre until June 3, 2017
Tickets from $20 at 604-251-1363/tickets.thecultch.com
Posted May 21, 2017
To answer my own question – “What can I do about the grim aftermath of the residential school system?” – here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell you to see Children of God, a heartbreaking new musical by Corey Payette (book, music, lyrics and direction), a Canadian of Oji-Cree heritage from Northern Ontario. And I’m going to question the BC Ministry of Education about why First Nations history isn’t being taught in a more honest and significant way in the schools. I can tell you about the signing of the Magna Carta but not when or how the shameful, often brutal, residential school system was set up in Canada. I have an idea of why thousands of young indigenous kids were ‘scooped’, given English names and punished for using their mother tongue: it was all about ‘saving’ – that is, converting to Christianity – the so-called ‘savages’ and integrating them into the Euro-Canadian culture. It was a deal between the federal government and the Church. Later, it was administered by Indian Affairs.
An impressive, articulate young woman of Tshilqot’in, Syilx, Kutenai, Dakelh, and Canada Nations ancestry, Kim Harvey told an attentive and surprisingly large number of people who stayed for the post-show Q & A, that trauma to past generations can be detected in our DNA. Is it possible that guilt for sins of our fathers or our governments is also detectable? Why do subsequent generations of Canadians feel so much guilt over this disgraceful period of our history?
So emotionally affecting is Children of God, two Emotional Support rooms are set up for counselling audience members who simply have to leave the theatre. I can only imagine how devastating the story of three little boys and three little girls, ripped from their families, relocated to a residential school, stripped of their names and language, underfed and often both emotionally and sexually abused, would be to those who actually attended those schools or whose parents and grandparents had suffered that trauma. The last of the schools closed down in the 1990s. It’s recent history and we know so little about it.
A world première produced by Urban Ink in collaboration with the National Arts Centre and Raven Theatre, Children of God is a musical. The songs with a few exuberant, playful exceptions are sad or angry or mournful but it does end on a note of optimism and celebration. If we honor those who suffered then there is hope for the future.
And there is anger. When Michael Torontow (as Father Christopher) enters the basement isolation room where runaway Julia (Cheyenne Scott) is being punished, my stomach turned and I was not alone. Torontow must feel waves of revulsion pouring off the audience; he may need one of those Emotional Support rooms before the run is over. Sister Bernadette (Trish Lindström), harsh and punishing, eventually redeems herself while Father Christopher remains in denial to the bitter end.
Set design by Marshall McMahen is glorious: the side and upstage walls are draped in meters and meters of either painted or dyed cloth, creating a huge storm-clouded sky that with Jeff Harrison’s lighting can appear blue and cold, grey and stormy or radiantly sunset-red. As performers enter and depart, there is a faint rustling of the fabric as if ruffled by a light wind. It’s simply beautiful. Set pieces – mostly metal cots – are whisked on and off by the performers.
Four musicians under the musical direction of Allen Cole provide accompaniment to the almost twenty songs.
Children of God goes back and forth in time. We see Tommy (Herbie Barnes) as a little kid in the school with friends Wilson (Kevin Loring) and Vincent (Aaron M. Wells). And we see Tommy (now Tom) as a recovered alcoholic, still traumatized over the events at the school. Central to the story is Tommy’s sister Julia whose friends Joanne (Kim Harvey) and Elizabeth (Kaitlyn Yott) try repeatedly to help Julia run away.
Powerful in the story and in her voice is Cathy Elliott as Tommy and Julia’s mother Rita. It is Elliott who sings and beats the drum honoring not only Julia but, we feel, all the broken and disappeared children. Thousands of youngsters died in the residential schools; many were buried in unmarked graves. Parents were not always informed.
Harvey, quoting from someone in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, said, “Education got us into it; education will get us out of it.” It will take non-First Nations people to join in, to educate ourselves, to support First Nations’ issues. Why, for example, are there so many First Nations communities without clean drinking water? How can our governments – at all levels – allow this to continue?
Julia and Tommy’s story will break your heart. Then sort of mend it. On the night I attended, the real conclusion to Children of God happened after the curtain fell and the entire audience rose to its feet – not in a standing ovation – but to bear witness. Strangers joined hands, row after row, even across the aisles. There were tears; there was jubilation. Going back to the very roots of theatre, it was a rare experience of communion.