GOD AND THE INDIAN by Drew Hayden Taylor, directed by Renae Morriseau, with Thomas Hauff and Lisa C. Ravensbergen. Presented by Native Earth Performing Arts and Firehall Arts Centre at the Aki Studio Theatre, Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East). Previews to Tuesday (May 5), opens Wednesday (May 6) and runs to May 17, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $15-$25, some discounts and pwyc Tuesday. 416-531-1402, nativeearth.ca.
Drew Hayden Taylors God And The Indian explores the residential school tragedy in a striking fashion: an Anglican priest, George King, finds himself confronted by a woman from his past, when he taught at such a school.
Shes Johnny, a Cree woman who, panhandling in front of a Tim Hortons, sees him for the first time in 40 years. Following George back to the church where hes just been made assistant bishop, Johnny reminds him of a history hed rather forget.
Johnnys caught in the past as well as the present, and she needs a future, muses Lisa C. Ravensbergen, who plays the part in the production, which opens as part of the Native Earth Performing Arts season before travelling to Vancouvers Firehall Arts Centre.
The future shes presented with is bleak, but she wants to find her way home, a desire she states in the first words she speaks. Over the course of the play she travels a circular journey, a kind of spiral or eddy, that relates to her memory. Each time she visits an incident from her past, she goes deeper as a way of landing herself in the present.
As Johnny talks to George, we learn about her family and what she suffered, on several levels, in the residential school. We also learn about Georges past, but the two characters memories arent the same.
Hes confronted with something hes certain he hasnt done, says Ravensbergen, a multidisciplinary actor, writer, director and dramaturge whose last mainstage Toronto performance was in The Unnatural And Accidental Women. Shes been back several times since then to work on Native Earths annual Weesageechak Festival.
There are two truths in the room, and each is fierce in resisting the other. The two people provoke, challenge and battle each other, neither willing to bend to the others viewpoint. Its quite a relentless struggle.
Yet Taylors script has its moments of levity, too.
Theres a depth of irreverence in the way Drew tackles subjects that are either taboo or have a depth to them that we as a society arent fully equipped to talk about, smiles the actor.
Sometimes humour is an entry point into conflict that eases people into that world and then surprises them with the things they are able to confront. Theres something interesting that goes on when you go through a side door to look at difficult things.
But performing the material is tricky, even with or maybe even because of its comedy.
Its challenging as an actor not to play a single note, not to ride the coattails of Drews irreverence or a generalized wash of cliches about a homeless, sick First Nations figure whos a residential school survivor.
I keep having to ask myself why Johnny says something and what does she want so often her words are masked with a seeming throwaway tone. In her conversation with George, she often either hides or digs toward what she needs, which is freedom from the tale shes forced to enact.
To give justice to that story, I have to dig along with her.