Feature Photo: Native Earth Performing Arts
Anishnawbe humourist writer, and playwright, Drew Hayden Taylor’s, God and the Indian is premiering in Toronto with Native Earth Performing Arts. Director, Renae Mousseau brings this sobering tale to life starring Lisa C. Ravensbergen who portrays Johnny Indian. Johnny is a homeless Cree woman who, after 30 years randomly happens upon her former ‘teacher’ and tormentor from her days in residential school. Johnny confronts the priest, now the newly promoted Anglican Assistant Bishop George King played by veteran actor Thomas Hauff. As Taylor’s cleverly crafted tale begins, the Assistant Bishop greets the strange panhandler at his door and at first treats her with cursory dismissal. As Johnny pushes the Bishop to remember the ghosts of the past, a haunting vignette unfolds that foreshadows the power of the ‘nameless’ to make themselves known.
The story and the characters criss-cross the small set as lighting effects reveal residential school shadows and memories long buried. Johnny forces the Bishop to remember her and their past relationship. Both square off as they spiral downward into the depths of their fear, shame, and self-loathing. By the end of the tale we are left wondering if we witnessed Johnny’s struggle to be heard or the Bishop’s haunted memories. The twist at the end is sure to keep viewers guessing.
Indigenous stories like ‘God and the Indian’ are important catalysts for the understanding and awareness of a very dark part of Canadian history as well as shedding light on the present day challenges. As Johnny confronts her abuser, she constantly asks, “am I real? am I a ghost?” as if pleading with the audience as well as the Bishop for the acknowledgement she so desperately needs. Drew Hayden Taylor has written a finely crafted mixture of humour and horror. It’s as if he’s holding our hand, guiding us into our dark past. When it gets heavy, his humour asserts itself as a tool of Indigenous resilience and strength.
In 2008, Canadians witnessed the historic public apology by the Canadian Government for its involvement in the residential school system. After seven years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will be hosting its closing event in Ottawa from May 31 to June 3, 2015. The TRC has provided a platform whereby thousands of Indigenous peoples have shared their experiences about the horrors that took place including that of children who never made it home.
As emotionally-charged conversations are being played out across the country, God and the Indian is very timely, and very necessary. ‘God and the Indian’ was first staged in Vancouver in 2013, similarly the Toronto production is provoking feelings of discomfort as it prods tender spots and promotes conversation on a difficult topic.
Individuals, groups, and organizations who want to know more more about or who work with Indigenous peoples should see this production; indeed all Canadians need to see it. Ravensberger and Hauff bring this Canadian experience to life in a way that can infuse discussion where too often there ignorance and indifference. How do we acknowledge stories like Johnny’s in a way that promotes real change? Naming the nameless and acknowledging who and what we have become as individuals and as a country is essential in replacing ignorance and indifference with compassion.
‘God and the Indian’ is presented in partnership with Firehall Arts Centre will be shown in Toronto until May 17th at Native Earth Performing Arts’ Aki Studio Theatre 585 Dundas Street East.