Residential-school history sings in Corey Payette's new musical Children of God

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      “How I understand musicals to work best is they express emotions that are beyond words, so when characters can no longer speak, they sing. This felt like a perfect fit.”

      Writer, director, composer, and lyricist Corey Payette knows what he’s talking about. Seven years ago, he began writing his new musical, Children of God. It centres on an Oji-Cree family’s residential-school experience and the ensuing intergenerational trauma. Today, he’s rehearsing the opening number and he’s two weeks from Children of God’s world premiere. While many things have changed in the last seven years regarding public awareness of residential schools, Payette knows there’s still a tremendous amount of education and healing to be done, and he hopes to further that work through song.

      “When this idea came up, I really felt like people didn’t know about this history,” Payette says. He remembers being in his early 20s when he started to fully grapple with the breadth and depth of the effects of residential schools. Payette says his initial anger and frustration came out of not learning about residential schools in the classroom or history books, so a big part of the work of Children of God is making sure future generations know “that this happened in our country, that we include this history as part of how we understand our Canadian identity. That this isn’t just something that we see as a part of Canadian history, but that it needs to inform how we see ourselves today and the choices that we make moving forward. Part of it is that acknowledgment and ensuring survivors that the experiences they went through, we will never let that happen again, in any way.”

      Payette says that residential schools weren’t talked about at home, in his family, or in his community. He understands that the silence was born out of firsthand and intergenerational trauma, and feelings of shame around years of abuse and violence. The show is already resonating meaningfully with survivors and their family members, and there are cast members whose parents and cousins went to residential schools. The company also spent time in late 2015 in Kamloops on the territory of the Tk’emlúps Indian Band, where they rehearsed and staged an in-progress version of the show at the Chief Louis Centre, which was once a residential school. Elder Evelyn Camille, who attended the school, came to bless the group on its first day. The producers reached out to the 17 reserves around Kamloops to ensure everybody who wanted to come could attend. Some people drove two or three hours to see the show.

      “In the second performance, there were a group of gentlemen who had gone to that residential school,” Payette recalls. “They were survivors and they had driven in from Merritt. From the moment that the show started until the end, they just wept.” Payette offered one of the men access to the counsellors who are on hand as part of the show, for people who might be triggered by the material or just feel they need a break. “When I saw that he was struggling with it, I told him, ‘You can go. We have people out there you can talk to.’ He said, ‘I’m not leaving my seat. I never thought that anyone would care enough about my story so that I could see it, so I’m going to sit here and watch it.’ ”

      It was a humbling and heartening moment, and a sentiment Payette’s heard from other survivors, too. On that level, he says, Children of God is already a success. But there’s more he hopes to accomplish.

      “There is a trickster element to it being a musical,” Payette says. “I hope that people will assume that because it is a musical it’s accessible, and ‘Oh, it’s for everyone! Oh, the music’s so pretty!’ and then they’ll come in and they’ll learn something. They’ll be a part of this experience where they’ll say, ‘Oh my goodness, not only did I see a great musical, but I feel connected to these people and this history.’…I think musicals can do that. They open up people’s hearts. All of a sudden you see this person, you care about them. Wouldn’t that change our world if people really cared about indigenous people?”

      Children of God runs at the York Theatre from next Wednesday (May 17) to June 3.