Redemption is generally an arduous path, fraught with the uncomfortable drudgery of soul-searching, painful introspection and a kind of lip-biting, somewhat reluctant one-eyed microscope peeking at one’s – or one powerful group’s – decisions and subsequent actions. Canada as a nation has much of which to be proud, and much to be envied and modeled after on the international stage. A frightening legacy of government-sanctioned tearing of Indigenous First Nations children away from their parents in an attempt to culturally streamline them to Eurocentric perfection is not one of them, however. This abhorrent practice, which went on from 1857 until as recently as 1996, claimed the lives of around 1/3 of the children who passed through its residential school system, a fact not lost on Oji-Cree playwright Corey Payette from Northern Ontario. He is a brilliant, talented storyteller who decided to offer his take with a snapshot of the dubious phenomenon and tell a story of one such family intensely affected by the actions of those in authority, even going out on a limb to turn the thick, richly though darkly textured narrative into a litany of musical numbers to go along with the searing but supremely important dialogue.
Children of God tells the story of two siblings, Tommy and Julia, literally snatched from their mother’s loving bosom as small children and whisked away to a “proper” school to get a “proper” religious education by the Catholic Church-run institution, and to “drum any Indian tendencies that remain” out of them, no unfortunate pun intended. But this isn’t simply a multicultural rehashing of the infamous Boys of St-Vincent story of Canadian religious schools and orphanages. This is more the poignant tale of a mother’s unending love, and her determination to be a part of her excised children’s lives, and even to make sure that they duly remember the rich heritage and precious traditions which define their identity, inextricably woven into their cultural fabric. A mostly Indigenous cast lends an even greater air of urgency and authenticity to a maximally compelling and gripping drama of life at the residential school in Ontario, where Tommy and Julia are forced to grow up – and grow up quickly they do.
Amidst the camaraderie of the captive children, there is the secret underground world in which they live and communicate to behold, as well as the indiscretions and atrocities committed at the school – culturally and otherwise. From the unforgiving and rather pathetic priest in charge of these children to the strict, no-nonsense nun who eventually finds herself soul-searching and questioning her mission, we eventually find ourselves ricocheting back and forth between the school and Tommy and Julia’s (and their cohorts’) experiences to the aftermath some two decades later, after all the cultural decimation has taken place and to where the pared down survivors have picked up their lives and gone on. Rita’s unwavering love for Tommy and Julia, symbolized by her repeated visits to the gate of the school – which her children never knew about – helps set the tone at the production’s outset and punctuates its tear-filled conclusion (including tears of joy mixed in as well) in riveting bookend fashion. Dillan Chiblow brings genuine emotional range to the role of Tommy, whereas the spirited, feisty, and fiercely intelligent Julia is personified by the dramatic and versatile talents of Cheyenne Scott. Their equally feisty mother is played with grit and a loving, deliberate style of sageness by Michelle St. John.
Adding flavour to the youth mix is the school’s aggressive troublemaker Wilson, played with a grandiose gleam in his eye to passionate perfection by Aaron M. Wells. Wilson’s outcome in life is juxtaposed in the latter year segments with his victim Tom’s adult struggles (he doesn’t particularly want to be called Tommy anymore), but one of the more nuanced and brilliant moments of the tale unfold when Wilson answers for his sellout ways and talks of a pain inside with which Tom is sadly acquainted as well – this as they set to brawl to vent their emotional pain and internal frustrations.
The costumes are perfectly of the period (circa 1950s Ontario working class and parochial school times), the giant moody clouds elevated behind the stage a thought-provoking and visually captivating set design and backdrop – both masterfully orchestrated by Marshall McMahen. The contrasting lighting of the sudden shift in time periods and emotional overtone of their various associated events are juggled with superbly staccato skill by Jeff Harrison, the sound in a similar vein by Kris Boyd. And the incredible music that will leave you feeling everything from joyous to haunted to inspired with hope is in the harmonious hands of musical director David Terriault (though originally musically directed by Allen Cole), and Elliott Vaughan is the sonically sharp orchestrator in the production.
Reconcile with our past, and come look to a more united future with mutual understanding and connectedness, in this one-of-a-kind essential portrait of a land we cherish – its triumphs, accomplishments, misdoings AND pitfalls alike – playing at the Segal Centre until February 10th . Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .