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GOD AND THE INDIAN
(This is Jerry's review of the original Firehall production from 2013.)
The long, sad history of Canadian residential schools and its long, sad aftermath have left scars on our society that are most visible in Vancouver around Hastings and Main. The residential school legacy of broken homes, addiction and myriad other social ills can be seen in many of the First Nations people who make up a disproportionate number of the homeless and poor on its crowded sidewalks. Just a block off East Hastings at the Firehall Arts Centre a new play asks us to consider the scars we can't see. In Drew Hayden Taylor's God and the Indian an aboriginal woman confronts an Anglican minister who once taught at the residential school she was forced to attend forty years before.
Taylor, an Ojibway from Ontario, is primarily known as a humourist, with multiple volumes of comic journalism and theatrical works that often play like aboriginal sitcoms. But his best plays use humour to get at painful issues, especially around the forced breakup of Native families. In God and the Indian, actress Tantoo Cardinal masterfully reveals her character's lifetime of pain in layer after layer of confession, accusation, jokes and harangues. Taylor's powerful, flawed drama shows us a damaged soul whose bitter laughter can't mask the wounds that never heal.
Reverend George King (Michael Kopsa) has just been promoted to Assistant Bishop when a bedraggled aboriginal woman follows him into his office. She recognized him in front of the Tim Hortons where she begs for spare change, she says, because "a lady's gotta do something with her life or she isn't a lady." But when she accuses him of having sexually abused her at the Anglican-run residential school, he doesn't think it's so funny.
She doesn't think so, either. Her life there was a nightmare and she's never awoken from it. Her younger brother died at the school and her parents disowned her. Afterwards she turned to drink, had a child with fetal alcohol syndrome who was taken away--the list of horrors is long and familiar. Unable to feel anything but anger and self-loathing, she denies her sex and her name, insisting that King call her Johnny Indian.
While Johnny pummels King with accusations and strips herself bare, Taylor finds ways to introduce comedy that sharpens the harsh truths. Rather than talking directly about how the residential schools robbed Native kids of their language, Johnny tells of a Scottish boyfriend who'd get so drunk he'd start talking "garlic or something," while Native guys she knows get drunk "and start talking Indian." Challenging King about the religious doctrine he taught her, she quips, "You told me Jesus and God were my parents. They were latchkey parents. Where were they when I needed them?"
After first denying all her accusations, King gradually comes around to admitting the monstrousness of the church-run school, but adamantly insists he never personally abused her. Kopsa finds some complexity and vulnerability behind King's stentorian exterior, but ultimately the character is just a drum for Johnny to beat, to pound out her grief.
God and the Indian feels like a natural one-act stretched into two. By the second act both characters are repeating themselves. The dramatic tension sags and director Renae Morriseau runs out of places on Lauchlin Johnson's office set to have Johnny chase King. This premiere production should encourage Taylor to judiciously trim his script. There's also a structural problem with this kind of two-hander in which one character continually threatens to leave or call the cops or kill the other. You know it's not going to happen because then the play would be over. So the inevitable false exits, yanked phone cords, repeated threats and other theatrical artifices inevitably distract from the real business of the play.
The real business here is to remind us that some pain just never goes away.