Isitwendam ambitiously tackles the legacy of residential schools

ISITWENDAM (AN UNDERSTANDING) by Meegwun Fairbrother (Native Earth/Bound to Create). At Aki Studio (585 Dundas East). Runs to March 31..


ISITWENDAM (AN UNDERSTANDING) by Meegwun Fairbrother (Native Earth/Bound to Create). At Aki Studio (585 Dundas East). Runs to March 31. $15-$30. 416-531-1402. See listing. Rating: NNN

Meegwun Fairbrothers ambitious solo show addresses the stories of residential school survivors, but tries to do too much and the result feels rushed.

As video footage of Stephen Harpers dispassionate 2008 apology to Indigenous Canadians screens in the background, we meet Brendan, a young idealist half-white, half-Ojibway conservative cheerfully filling out his application to work for the Harper government. Hes hired and sent on a mission to discredit the claim of a residential school survivor.

One by one, were introduced to the town residents whose stories gradually reveal the horrifying reality that Harper tried to whitewash.

Hans Saefkows set consists of a small stage in front of two sun-shaped screens providing a backdrop onto which lights and video are projected to create atmosphere and offer dimension to the action. Director Jack Grinhaus uses the set effectively to communicate space and time, while voice recordings add a distinct sense of community.

Fairbrothers physicality is powerful, especially the sequences alluding to the existential anxiety underpinning Brendans story, and later when he evokes a thunderbird.

But the action of the play feels too condensed. The narrative covers a lot in just over an hour, and early scenes with phone calls to his mother dont allow enough reaction time to feel realistic.

The structure of the solo show poses limitations: we witness these stories, but cannot see Brendans reaction to them, or how he processes them. As a result, his final conversation with his mother feels abrupt.

Its unclear who Fairbrother might be trying to reassure, but the attempt to resolve things neatly feels dissatisfying. The play is ultimately didactic, an attempt to show how our nations traumas are not just past but present. The first step, he reminds us, isnt dialogue: its listening.

But settler audiences shouldnt get a tidy conclusion. This play affects and implicates us all, and we need more time and space to sit with these intense feelings of sorrow, anxiety, guilt and shame.

@lisammckeown

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