Aboriginal actors Gordon White and Falen Johnson say understanding the past frees you to move forward.
A VERY POLITE GENOCIDE OR THE GIRL WHO FELL TO EARTH by Melanie J. Murray, directed by Yvette Nolan, with Falen Johnson, Gordon White, Paul Chaput and Waawaate Fobister. Presented by Native Earth at Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Opens Saturday (December 6) and runs to December 21, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. Pwyc-$25. 416-975-8555.
Canadians involved in the eradication of a people and its culture?
Sounds ridiculous, but not to Josie, the central figure in Melanie J. Murray's A Very Polite Genocide Or The Girl Who Fell To Earth. Discovering her Métis heritage, Josie searches for a family she never knew.
The investigation leads her to upsetting truths about the residential school system and the process known as scooping, in which Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and raised by white families.
"Josie starts from a position of believing that she is Caucasian," says Falen Johnson, who plays the role. When she takes a university Aboriginal studies course, her world's turned upside down.
"She starts to crack, to vomit up her internalized racism, all the ideas about natives she's been fed over the years. She has to re-ingest and reprocess those ideas, to realize and accept that the Aboriginal world is her own - that it's not way over there, but right in front of her."
Speaking those last words, Johnson points to actor Gordon White, who plays Robbie, the uncle Josie never met. In tracking him down, she comes to terms with who she is.
Taken from his parents as an infant and raised in various foster homes, Robbie gets lost in the system, says White.
"He has some horrible experiences in these homes and ends up not being able to feel much," notes Mi'kmaq Newfoundlander White. "Feeling abandoned by his mother makes Robbie misogynistic. He's homosexual, but I think his sexuality is more a resentment toward women in general than desire for another man.
"His sexuality is as ambiguous as his Aboriginal heritage."
The narrative bounces back and forth from the 1940s to the 1980s to today. But as hard as the transitions were for the actors early in rehearsal, the performers see the non-linear story form as appropriate.
"When we come into a room, we bring with us both yesterday and tomorrow," offers Johnson, whose heritage is Mohawk. "In the native concept of time, past, present and future exist on top of each other. It's no more linear than the play is."
"Knowing my history shows me what's been lost and allows me to come to terms with where I am today," continues White. "Understanding that history moves me forward into a new freedom."
Helping the central characters sort out their problems are a white doctor
and the Rougarou, a werewolf-like spirit who functions as a trickster, bringing knowledge to the misguided. Since he's a scary, haunting figure, the information he imparts isn't always pleasant.
But the emotional weight of the play falls on Johnson, onstage for most of the show. Luckily, dealing theatrically with the residential school system's psychic fallout isn't new her.
As a teen on Brantford's Six Nations Reserve, she took part in the collective creation One Voice, Many Stories, about the generational effects of the system.
"We'll never know everything we lost, and that's a hard thing to accept," she admits. "But a lot of us are tired of being victims. We've had the government's apology for its treatment of Aboriginal people. Now it's time to move on, to see the action behind those words."