November 15, 2018

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ANISHINAABE PLAYWRIGHT YOLANDA BONNELL ON THE CREATURE MANIDOONS: BUG

ANISHINAABE PLAYWRIGHT YOLANDA BONNELL ON THE CREATURE MANIDOONS: BUG

Yolanda Bonnell in Bug | Image source: Connie Tsange

Bug, a one woman theatrical performance, will makes it’s Tkaronto debut June 20 – 24 2018 at the Theatre Centre in conjunction with the Luminato Festival. The production will be performed by Anishinaabe playwright Yolanda Bonnell and explores the addictions and past traumas of her main character The Girl. At a young age, The Girl was taken from her alcoholic mother and put into foster care. As an adult her addictions manifest as the creature Manidoons – bug in Anishinaabemowin – becoming more dangerous as time passes. Before the premiere, Yolanda Bonnell opened up to MUSKRAT Magazine about her inspiration for Bug and how she feels art can be used as tool to heal and change the world.

MM: In a previous interview you mentioned that you got your inspiration for Bug when you “came across a tiny bug trying to cross the road” and connected that to the struggles Indigenous women can face. What was it like in that moment to have that epiphany and what motivated you to work that into a one person play?

YB: The moment of seeing that bug struggle going across the sidewalk, I felt like I understood that struggle as an Indigenous woman. The thought of the danger behind not knowing if you’re going to be crushed and that no one would care if they stepped on you. That correlation to the fear of the treatment of Indigenous women just resonated with me, especially with stats like Indigenous women are 5 times more likely to die a violent death, and with men who are getting away with killing our women. Also there is the connection between bugs and the idea of something crawling on your skin from inside of you and linking that to addiction. It meant a lot of different things for me. I felt that somewhere in there, there was a story to tell.

MM: I find one-person plays can often be really powerful performances. Can you tell me more about the process you use to write a one-person performance?

YB: I sat down and started to write Manidoons – which is the creature: the manifestation of addiction and intergenerational trauma- that was the first text that came to me. I just sat and thought about what would it feel like to be that creature, an insidious nature of being. Then I started thinking about the girl I was portraying and her backstory. A lot of that came from experiences I had growing up. We grew up in a house where we took in foster children, every once and awhile we had sisters and brothers that would come in. I knew this experience of trauma being cast down through bloodlines in different ways and how it can manifest itself into an addiction. I have my own addiction, I saw my family struggle with addiction and knew that was a story I needed to tell. My struggle was how to get in and out of different characters. I remember being scared that it would look dumb; but it worked out really well. Then the third character was added. It just felt like everything was coming into place and this embodiment of this journey needed to be told in a particular way.

MM: You have been open about personal depression and anxiety in the past. How has this motivated/inspired you in an artistic way?

Yolanda Bonnell in Bug | Image source: Connie Tsang

YB: I’ve been a creator the majority of my life; it’s been my outlet. I had this realization one day: how did I get out? How did I not succumb to the addictions that I could have had and not go down a different path? A lot of it is how I channel my creativity and how I use it as an outlet. I’ve always been a writer from a very young age and knew that that was the only way I can get all of my emotions out. I feel like that helps me focus. I struggled in my highschool years and early twenties. There were points where I wasn’t writing because I had completely given over to that anxious and depressed place. It was hard to get out of bed. I feel that the channeling, focusing and understanding that the things I was saying was not just about me, but were for other people too. I still struggle; it’s still inside of me, the anxiety and depression; I’m just more functional now and know how to channel it into something positive.

MM: What does the phrase: art can save lives and change the world mean to you?

YB: Art is healing, creating is healing. If we can bring that to others we are not only healing ourselves, but others as well. I think a lot about youth and the idea that they need to use their voices and tell their stories and their truths. They live in a reality where their country doesn’t care about them. This is the land they come from, but the government doesn’t care about them and the people don’t care about them. That’s just a fact. What do you think that does to your spirit or to your psyche?

I think about how high the suicide rates are for Indigenous kids as young as ten years old. I remember having those feelings at that age too. It’s really disheartening and troubling to think about how those young brains feel and what they feel like they need to do to cope with that. We are not given the skills needed fight through that. If we can bring a focus or goal to them and show them how they can use their creativity and their voice, it gives them an opportunity to heal. I’ve seen it in workshops with shy youth who are unsure, unable or unwilling to participate, but they are there and they’re watching and paying attention. I think that’s just one example.

I even think just telling our stories and our truths, as an education tool to show what our lived realities look like [and asking] settler audiences: what are you going to do about it? How are you going to use your privilege and platform to make change? Yes, you can come and pat yourselves on the back and feel good about the Indigenous people here, but what are you going to take away from it? What are you going to do when you see someone bullying an Indigenous person on the street? Are you going to stop and say something or are you going to ignore it, even though you know our stories and our truths. These are the things I think about.

MM: You write a lot of plays focused on Indigenous women. What do you hope audiences take away from your productions?

YB: There are separate things I want for Indigenous audiences and for settler audiences:

We did a tour on the west coast and one of the things that was beautiful for me was women telling me that they saw themselves in the piece and that I talked about a situation to their lives or to their experiences. They were able to see themselves – so representation is important. Indigenous people were born out of some sort of violence because we live in a colonized world. I know that there’s a lot of trauma and pain. [I hope] Indigenous people who see the piece feel represented, seen, and that their voices are being heard.

For settler audiences, I want them to have a deeper understanding of what some of our lived experiences are like, that we are resilient, and that are pain doesn’t just come from something that we picked up one day. It’s something that has been happening for generations and is passed through our bloodline. This systemic oppression of our people creates a mechanism of ways of life that we don’t know what to with and aren’t given any help with these things. It’s important for settlers to understand what their part is in that and that it comes from somewhere – the stereotype that THEY built about us, and that it started with colonialism.

Yolanda Bonnell Bio:

Yolanda Bonnell is a Bisexual/Pansexual/Queer emerging performer and playwright of Ojibwe and South Asian descent, hailing from the Fort William First Nation Indian Reserve in Thunder Bay, ON. She is a graduate of Humber College’s Theatre Performance program where she was the recipient of the Board of Governor’s Achievement Award. Her one woman physical theatre show bug*, directed by Cole Alvis, premiered at Native Earth’s Weesageechak Begins to Dance in 2015 and at the 37th annual Rhubarb Festival in 2016 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. It also appeared as a one off in Summerworks 2016 as part of a workshop residency and is set for a Toronto premier at the Luminato Festival in 2018 followed by a tour. Yolanda’s breakout role was as Theresa in The Crackwalker at Factory Theatre, directed by Judith Thompson. She then went on to appear in Falen Johnson’s Two Indians at Summerworks and was named one of NOW Magazine’s most exciting artists to watch in Summerworks.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as a Staff Writer for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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