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Photo: Emily Cooper
Children of God, Urban Ink

An Urban Ink (Vancouver) production in collaboration with NAC English Theatre, in association with Raven Theatre (Vancouver) and presented as part of the NAC’s Canada Scene Festival.
The first impression one has before the event begins, is an all-enveloping living breathing landscape that sweeps horizontally across the front of the newly named Babs Asper theatre space and carries us away into another realm of being. Huge roling clouds, suggestions of a liquid surface, flat rocks that continue far back into a horizon defined by the sky. Ominous mountain shapes rise on either side of Marshall McMahan’s breathtaking set design that is brought to life by Jeff Harrison’s shifting lighting effects , by Kris Boyd’s sound design and Corey Payette’s musical compositions executed by the four musicians tucked away on stage right just behind the landscape. The music dissolves into the surrounding site as the performance space engulfs us , exemplifying the tortured nature of this situation that unfolds on the stage.

Director, composer, writer, lyricist Corey Payette has conceived a musical performance that represents a step in the process of healing the wounds inflicted on Native Canadians by Canada’s residential schools . Giving voice to some of those people directly involved in the schools, three girls, three boys, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, also means introducing the personal stories of these people and bringing the performance right into an authentic Ojibway ritual which becomes the transformative moment of the whole event. If some earlier scenes might have seemed to move a bit too slowly, if some singing voices didn’t always have the expected impact because they were not strong enough or if some of the lyrics seemed blurred by the electronic equipment during a couple of the children’s group numbers, it all moved through a strong second act and an emotional high which you are unlikely ever to experience again in the theatre of the NAC.
Among the strongest voices , were those of Cheyenne Scott as Julia, the young “Runaway” who represents the collective tragedy of the youth. Kevin Loring who has been seen often in Ottawa was also interesting as Wilson, one of the young boys who has grown up to become a businessman and reject his native roots as he was so brutally taught. His years in the school have gutted his sense of identity just as they destroyed Tom, sung by the volatile Herbie Barnes. Trish Lindstron as Sister Bernadette is the tortured Nun who is also a victim of the church teachings and her eventual self-liberation expressed in a solo (Their Spirits are Broken) was also moving. However, it is the spectacular Cathy Elliott, who , as well as performing the mother, also incarnates a true shamanic presence in that space as she appeared among the children drumming, speaking, singing and using her extremely powerful voice that seemed to transform itself into a strong authoritative force as the evening progressed. During the final moments , we were no longer watching theatre, rather, we were experiencing ritual transformation as we listened to that extraordinary voice in Ojibway, calling forth the spirits (Until We See You Again), an event that would leave its mark on our minds as it first filtered through a corporeal reaction. Artaud understood that in the 1930s after watching the Tarahumaras in Mexico. Richard Schechner and Jerzy Grotowski put that into their visions of theatre in the 1960s. Now Urban Ink (from B.C) and Corey Payette are returning that theatre to our own sources with no need to borrow from anyone else.
It is clear that this production was driven by the message, the intention to illustrate and denounce the shameful policy of the Canadian government, emphasizing the need to finally tell the world, through the Truth and Reconciliation process , about the damage done by those schools.
Brief segments of their lives are played out in that isolated setting (God only knows what we have been through), accompanied by the delicate dialogue between lighting, music, drums and the human voices.
The show also highlighted the psychological effects of the schooling on the parents as well as on the survivors , often in parallel sequences that heighten the mixture of a Brechtian configuration of distance, and the real experience of ritual transformation that invaded the stage during the most critical moments of the show. The real struggle in that school system is to keep from forgetting one’s past and many of the scenes , even the most playful ones , also show the great diversity of God’s children – those who pretend to speak for him and those whom he seems to have forgotten. It shows how even in the depths of despair, the children still have the spirit to resist the regime, in spite of the extreme cruelty exercised by the priest whose hypocrisy and cold blooded obedience to the church were only possible because he really believed they were all “creatures of the devil”, “dirty savages” who had to be cleansed .
Thus, the message of reconciliation is also a warning about monotheisms’ destructiveness and a condemnation of colonialism- strong statements that Canadian theatre is at last sending into the world, even at this late date!
Children of God plays in the Theatre of the NAC from June 7 to June 18, 2017
An Urban Ink (Vancouver) production in collaboration with NAC English Theatre, in association with Raven Theatre (Vancouver) and presented as part of the NAC’s Canada Scene Festival.
Book, music, lyrics, and direction by Corey Payette
Set and Costumes : Marshall McMahen
Musical direction : Allen Cole
Orchestrator: Elliot Vaughan
Dramaturg: Sybille Pearson
Lighting: Jeff Harrison
Sound: Kris Boyd
Cello : Brian Chan
Piano: Allen Cole
Guitar: Martin Reisle
Viola: Elliot Vaughan