Panic, discomfort, confinement: these are just some of the sensations playwright-performer Donna-Michelle St. Bernard has to fight through when she straps on what looks like a suicide vest for The Only Good Indian.
“It’s the correct weight and it’s not comfortable at all,” confides St. Bernard, a collaborator on the project, speaking from Toronto. “There’s such a real and present weight.…I’m genuinely projecting strength and determination through my panic.”
The provocative new work from Toronto’s Pandemic Theatre rotates three artists in the solo role from May 23 to 27 at the Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab during the rEvolver Festival. And each gives a deeply personal take on themes that were posed to them at the beginning of the creative process—on topics like colonization, labour, and Indigenous identity. “As far as I’m concerned, Pandemic is doing the most exciting political work in Canadian theatre right now,” says St. Bernard, who was a nominee for the 2017 Siminovitch Prize and has been put forward twice for the Governor General’s Award for English-language drama.
The critically acclaimed show has been described by its creators as “part lecture, part meditation, part threat”. In it, St. Bernard, Jivesh Parasran, and Tom Arthur Davis work partly from the same script, then diverge into radically different world-views. For St. Bernard, the monologue blends history lessons about her Caribbean homeland, the Grenadines and Grenada, with stories of her own family’s experiences of the revolution of 1979 and U.S. invasion of 1983.
St. Bernard says she painstakingly put together the details by calling living relatives to check facts, even performing the work alone to her mother. “I said, ‘Did I lie? Do you feel misrepresented?’
“I am not an actor,” adds St. Bernard, who says she had to go against years of being told by her family never to talk about what happened in Grenada. “If I don’t believe things to be true, I can’t make a good show.’
And the menacing costume piece she wears off the top of The Only Good Indian? “It’s the punch line to every joke,” she says. “It’s what allows us to go on tangents, because you never forget why I’m there. So when I start to tell you about a cruise that my grandmother’s sister went on, the question is how this is going to relate back to the vest.” No doubt: she’ll have your undivided attention.