Children of God's gifted cast and dramatic design elements bring Canada's national shame to life

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      Book, lyrics, music, and direction by Corey Payette. A Cultch presentation of an Urban Ink production in collaboration with National Arts Centre English Theatre in association with Raven Theatre. At the York Theatre on Friday, May 19. Continues until June 3

      Children of God takes a while to find traction, but the emotional release it eventually delivers is worth the wait.

      The book, lyrics and music are all by Corey Payette, who also directs this production, slated to open at the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa immediately following this run. The scope of his ambition is enormous: a number of Canadian plays have addressed the legacy of Canada’s residential school system, but few have attempted to dramatize the experiences of children in the schools.

      Payette’s script zeroes in on Tom, a survivor who is visiting his mother, Rita. A chance encounter with an old classmate, Wilson, unleashes painful memories of the residential school, led by Father Christopher, where Tommy and his sister Julia were sent as children. Father Christopher takes his government- and church-mandated mission of "killing the Indian in the child" seriously, referring to his students as "dirty savages" and to their language as a "devil tongue". He criticizes the girls’ teacher, Sister Bernadette, for being too soft on her charges, especially after Julia tries to run away. The action shifts between Tom’s present life and the abuse he and the other children endured at the school, often superimposing the two time frames.

      This storytelling approach takes a while to land; events accumulate without a clear narrative trajectory. But the interweaving of past and present narrative threads is echoed in the songs, where voices from different worlds and perspectives come together in polyphonic counterpoint in Payette’s mostly minor-key score. The children’s dreams and their reality coalesce powerfully in a song late in the first act called "Gimkwenden Ina (Do You Remember?)". One night, the children come to visit Julia in the cellar, where she is being kept as punishment for trying to escape. Tommy reads out a letter he has written in Ojibway, and a vision of his mother joins them. As she drums and sings, the children dance, and the prison of the school is briefly transformed into a place where they can be whole. This tension between hope and sorrow comes more sharply into focus in the second act, culminating in a conclusion that is one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever been part of as a theatregoer.

      Payette’s characters are complex: Rita crosses herself when giving Tom a gift from his father, for example, and the  school’s  nun and priest aren’t one-dimensional villains. And his staging, with help from movement director Raes Calvert, makes inventive use of gesture and image to convey some of the story’s darkest turns.

      He’s also been gifted with an excellent cast. Herbie Barnes’s Tommy is innocent as a boy and broken as a man; his soulful vocals, especially in a late number called "Wonderland", are deeply affecting. Cheyenne Scott is a strong singer who brings a transparent purity to Julia. Kim Harvey provides comic relief in her roles as one of the children, Joanna, and as a curt secretary in the present. And Cathy Elliott’s Rita pushes the emotional impact of the play fathoms deeper: her grief and her determination to heal are the musical’s throbbing heart.

      The design elements in this production are exquisite. Marshall McMahen’s set is a stunner: the playing area is shrouded by an enormous paper backdrop shaped like a whale’s fluke and painted with dark clouds. Jeff Harrison’s gorgeous lighting plays on that sky, bathing it in moody colours. Musical director Allen Cole leads a four-piece band who ably support the songs and add subtle textures to the scenes in between.

      This is a brave work, and a starting point for important conversations (a facilitated discussion follows every performance). See it.