From residential schools to missing and murdered women to environmental destruction to white fragility to lateral violence to colonialism in academia to truth and (re)conciliation there is no issue impacting Indigenous peoples that is not touched upon in Encounters.
The opening scene depicts a competition for rehearsal space as a group of multiracial theatre artists displace an Indigenous women’s singing circle (their entitled white male director referring to the Elder as “grandma”). The confrontation is totally unnecessary as the women are closing but the petulant and tyrannical director harasses them until they finally withdraw. The subsequent rehearsal of a misogynistic Shakespearean scene is fraught with tension as an actor who questions why she needs a blonde wig is told, with huge resentment, that her character is white. The lead is encouraged to fully embody the character’s feelings in the wake of encountering one of the many “whores and bitches, bitches and whores” who have rejected and betrayed him throughout his life. The juxtaposition of stories and those who are created by them is highly symbolic of what is to follow.
The process that resulted in Encounters is possibly as interesting its outcome. Initially Indigenous and nonindigenous participants began their work on the piece in separate groups where they were given a number of weeks to work on healing. Afterward they came together to fit their created pieces into a nonlinear and poignant narrative. The process was designed with the understanding that we all need healing and that some degree of it has to happen before Indigenous and nonindigenous folks can come together to “concile”. Curator and Director Jill Carter opines that “reconcile” implies the act of former lovers coming back together after a silly argument, all being forgiven – a concept that does not apply to the trajectories of Indigenous/nonindigenous relationships.
Notable scenes: A woman of South Asian descent whose borrowed credit card is declined is accused of committing fraud. She muses less on her predicament than on comparing the outrage over a small transaction gone sour with the lack of concern whatsoever over the massive and ongoing fraud of stolen Indigenous land.
New to Canada, a six-year-old Black girl, eager to impress in first grade, is spat upon by white boys at recess and told that “monkeys” don’t belong in school. To this day she can’t stop washing her hands of the slimy spittle.
An Elder speaks of being taken on an exciting train ride by her beloved siblings only to be abandoned in residential school at the tender age of five.
A young woman considers suicide after a year of losing loved ones (an uncle, auntie, grandmother, dog and treasured friend). On her way to picking up the morphine with which she intends to end her life, she is deterred by an invitation to tea from a white woman who declares her beautiful.
A woman burdened by guilt after her boyfriend commits suicide finds purpose and meaning in moving to Toronto to study Indigenous theatre.
The eldest daughter in a fatherless and hungry family minds the kids as mom takes them north to check on empty traplines, then farther still, in search of food. Finally, after a satisfying meal, the daughter has a frightening encounter with the Witiko.
Interspersed between the stories are black comedic vignettes of a white professor, played by an Indigenous performer, who clearly resents being required to incorporate treaty studies into her International Relations course. She mispronounces every Indigenous name, place and concept while being unapologetically contemptuous of Indigenous worldviews. The character is based on reality, Jill Carter says. Heads in the audience nod.
As witnesses we are left to ponder which stories are fiction, which are embellished and which really happened but there isn’t any doubt that all of them are true.
In the final scene, a young white woman, apologizes for her previous self-involvement. She now knows the humility of stepping aside to make space for Indigenous voices.
The sincerity and willing vulnerability of many first-time performers to publicly deconstruct everything they think they know is impressive.
In sum, the showcase does not respond with one voice to the question of where we go from here. Instead it leaves us with many questions and a few scattered thoughts: “How do strangers become friends?” “We have a responsibility to listen.” “All things happen for a reason.” “I’m sorry.” “Is this conversation healthy and healing?” “It’s important to know what they think of us so we know what we are up against.”
In conclusion, one might consider the presentation a snapshot, a moment in time, that captures a variety of questions and assertions held by the artists who are still processing the responsibilities of right relationship. Certainly, it is among the most honest of explorations to be found on the issue.
*Curated and Directed by Jill Carter, Encounters at the “Edge of the Woods” ran Sep 06 – Sep 07, 2019 at The University of Toronto in association with Hart House’s 100th Anniversary
About Jill Carter
As a researcher and theatre-worker, Jill Carter (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi) works in Tkaronto with many Indigenous artists to support the development of new works and to disseminate artistic objectives, process, and outcomes through community-driven research projects. Her scholarly research, creative projects, and activism are built upon ongoing relationships with Indigenous Elders, scholars, youth, artists and activists positioning her as witness to, participant in, and disseminator of oral histories that speak to the application of Indigenous aesthetic principles and traditional knowledge systems to contemporary performance.