Directed by David Diamond. A Theatre for Living production, in collaboration with Journeys Around the Circle Society. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Sunday, March 5. Continues until March 11
Joe (the always great Sam Bob) is an indigenous man and residential-school survivor who is finding it harder and harder to connect with his college-age daughter, Siya (portrayed through a terrific performance by Madeline Terbasket). As she embraces her ancestral connections to the land through activism and decolonization, and confronts a friend, Chase (Mutya Macatumpag) who refuses to acknowledge her settler privilege, more questions emerge about her father’s background and their rift deepens.
Siya also helps open the eyes of her friend Lucas (Asivak Koostachin), a young indigenous man adopted and raised by Doug (Tom Scholte), a white colleague of Joe’s, and his wife, Sarah (Rev. Margaret Roberts). Unacknowledged racism and fear have kept the couple from telling Lucas anything about his biological parents, his real name, or that he’s Cree. When Siya gives Lucas her medicine pouch, it sets off a chain of confrontations. Doug’s racism (obvious to everyone but him) also causes a work situation to go off the rails when he berates the new guy, Vincent (a powerful turn from Nayden Palosaan), an indigenous man he hired as a favour to Joe.
It’s a lot of story to squash inside 30 minutes, and things escalate sharply, convening at a real crisis point. But there’s no tidy resolution. Instead, this is where director David Diamond invites the audience inside the action. Theatre for Living’s forum style is ultimately an interactive approach wherein the play’s actors restage key scenes—moments of potential reconciliation that were blocked for any number of reasons—and any audience member can call “Stop” and come on-stage to take over a role of their choosing, with Diamond helping to facilitate different outcomes.
It’s a brave thing to put oneself inside this vulnerable piece of theatre, and Diamond recontextualizes the world of the play versus the outside world by reminding everybody that nonindigenous people are just now starting to contemplate what reconciliation means and are taking baby steps, whereas indigenous people have already been doing the work for a long time.
This is an important thing to verbalize, because very quickly the night morphed into Theatre of White Fragility and ballooned from an estimated two-hour running time to almost three hours. Save for one or two genuinely moving interactions that had many people in tears, particularly a nuanced retelling of the scene in which Joe opens up about the trauma of his residential-school days, it became kind of exhausting, even embarrassing, how many white-presenting audience members wanted to come up on-stage and re-centre the conflicts around, seemingly, their own whiteness and/or the white person’s feelings and experiences.
A number of white-presenting people opted to take over from the indigenous actors and erase their characters almost entirely. Twice, white-presenting people took over the character of Doug, the racist adoptive father, employer, and friend, and just decided to make him not racist. Pretending someone just isn’t racist or denying racism is one of the most significant Canadian blockages to reconciliation!
In the final instance of Doug’s takeover, the central issue became the adoptive white parents’ feelings about finally revealing their adoptive son’s Cree heritage. As the family wrestled with a path forward, the volunteer turned to Joe and suggested he could weigh in because “he has more experience with this kind of thing”. Bob, improvising Joe’s response, reacted as diplomatically as possible, replying, “I’m not Cree, but maybe I can offer some practical suggestions.” This is markedly different than what is scripted, which is a highly charged confrontation that challenges racism and white fragility, and prioritizes the fears and feelings of the young indigenous people, Lucas and Siya.
In that final restaging, the character of Siya was asked by Diamond to voice her most secret thoughts after witnessing a particularly revisionist scene. “Fuckin’ white tears,” Siya improvises, Terbasket’s delivery a perfect combination of contempt and resignation. What is asked of the indigenous actors here—some of whom must go to very dark, triggering places—just so the audience can spend a lot of time trying to erase the racist behaviour of the white male character?
šxʷʔam'ət (home) is a provocative and powerful piece of theatre and engagement. The barriers it breaks down are significant, and I would like to see it again with a different audience because it was deeply frustrating to be surrounded by so many people who believe they’re good allies—those who show up to theatre like this and have an opportunity to engage in truly daring ways, but default to what they know: fuckin’ white tears indeed. This piece deserves so much more and I hope it gets that chance throughout the rest of its run, and with a touring production next year.