One of the most vital and powerful new works in Canadian musical theatre has found fertile soil in Montreal this season.
A buried narrative of our nation’s history is brought to effulgent light in Children of God, the critically acclaimed Urban Ink production that first premiered at Vancouver’s York Theatre in 2017 and which is now being staged at The Segal Centre for Performing Arts as part of its ongoing national tour.
With book, music, lyrics and direction by Oji-Cree artist Corey Payette, the modern musical vividly exposes and explores the legacy of over 130 years of abuse perpetrated on Aboriginal communities by the Canadian government’s residential school system. From 1857 to 1996, over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis were enrolled in the institutions, of which an estimated 50,000 youth died while attending. It’s been nearly 25 years since the last school locked its gates, but the lingering effects of the nation’s attempts to “kill the Indian in the child” are still proven to be felt in this profoundly moving creation.
Featuring a predominantly Indigenous cast, Children of God focuses in on the traumatic experience of a fictional Oji-Cree family’s separation as siblings Julia (Cheyenne Scott) and Tommy (Dillan Chiblow) are forcibly taken away from their widowed mother Rita (Michelle St. John) to a religious residential school in Northern Ontario.
Under the strict tutelage of Father Christopher (David Keeley) and Sister Bernadette (Sarah Carlé), the children’s braids are cut, they are dressed in uniform, and they are given new names under the federal government’s instruction of assimilating Aboriginals into a more “civilized” Euro-Christian society – all in the vision of a more unified Canada. Alongside their schoolmates (Michelle Bardach, Jacob MacInnis, Aaron M. Wells, and Kaitlyn Yott), the gender-segregated students are stripped of their language, traditions, and culture through the indoctrination. Forbidden to see their parents, attempts to escape or to even communicate with kin in their native tongue are met with harsh punishment. Swiftly dancing back and forth across two decades, the script then unfolds to reveal the fates of its characters both in the midst and the aftermath of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
Payette’s book grounds the heavy piece in truth, but it is the soaring original score that renders Children of God transcendental. It’s difficult to conceive “musical theatre” and “residential schools” as being adjacent terms, but a compelling narrative here told through spirited song and dance seems quite in keeping with Indigenous artistic expression.
Production musical director and pianist David Terriault leads the live band of four (Lana Tomlin, Camille Paquette-Roy, and Simon Legault square out the quartet on strings) to deliver a mix of the contemporary and the traditional (Allen Cole is the original MD, and Elliot Vaughan is behind the orchestrations). Musical highlights of the production include the male voices and harmonies of MacInnis, Wells, and Chiblow, with the latter’s emotional rendition of “Wonderland” as a most memorable tear-jerker. Michelle St. John is also to be noted for her raw presence throughout the show, and her final moments are equally heartrending.
Production designer Marshall McMahen’s set is barren, but effective in establishing the atmosphere of desolation and isolation with Jeff Harrison’s lighting and Kris Boyd’s sound design. Storytelling here precedes visual spectacle.
Children of God entertains and thrills with its outpouring of musical numbers, certainly, but its greatest role lies in its promotion of intercultural understanding in Canada’s continuous journey of reconciliation. And, although the narrative is predominantly victim-centred, there are compassionate attempts to consider multiple sides of the story – case in point being the humanization of the church officials. Father Christopher is the least fleshed out among the personages, but Sarah Carlé’s eleven o’clock song (“Their Spirits Are Broken”) as Sister Bernadette serves as the poignant paragon. The introduction of the perspective of a high-level government figure would have even further layered the script.
The production is furthermore commendable for providing a public platform for conversations on the affairs to take place; moderated talkbacks are held after every performance.
While the piece is a solemn acknowledgement of the cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma endured by survivors of systemic abuse, it ultimately seeks to be a celebration of Indigenous redemption and resilience. Striking a balance between heartbreak and hope, healing is presented as the defining experience. Children of God allows for a reclamation of language and identity, upholding the message of allowing people to tell their own stories and to be who they fundamentally are.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Please be advised that the play contains explicit descriptions and depictions of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and suicide. Counsellors will available on-site at each performance to speak with audience members in need of emotional support.
An Urban Ink and Segal Centre for the Performing Arts co-production
Performances: January 20th to February 10th, 2019
Venue: Segal Centre | 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine, Montreal, H3W 1M7
Tickets: $25.00 – $62.00
Box Office: (514) 739.7944 | www.segalcentre.orgP