"Ye Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath..." (Ephesians 6:4)

Darkling "Children of God" musical @ York; Residential Schools revisited

Drumming up a dithyramb in the Belly of the Beast. Photo: Emily Cooper

Trauma, it turns out, can be inherited.

Not by altering your DNA, per se, which is untouched by environmental factors. But severe stress can tweak the associated constellation of epigenetic “on-off switches” that control how genes are expressed. And such changes can be passed on from one generation to the next long after the original trauma is relieved.

In director Corey Payette’s searing singspiel “Children of God,” nine aboriginal actors tackle the traumas of forced deracination and sadistic abuse in Canada’s Indian Residential School system.  Yet all nine of them are successful and accomplished theatre artists, members of the first indigenous cohort in eight generations to be exempt from the threat of state-sanctioned, church-administered kidnapping.

So how can they manage so skilfully and feelingly to recreate a nightmare they never personally endured? Sheer high-order professionalism, no doubt, but perhaps with an extra booster charge of epigenetic legacy.

For “Children of God” – like so much of the recent spate of Truth-and-Reconciliation-inspired art – derives its authority from the lived immediacy of its subject matter, rather than technical finesse or aesthetic daring. Payette himself wrote the book, music and lyrics. Forthright and tuneful, the script and score move the melodramatic plot briskly, never obscuring the play’s ethical payload with needless nuance or ambiguity.

Likewise, production designer Marshall McMahen keeps the stage clear of needless clutter. He makes do with just a single curtain-wall set hauntingly suggestive of a claustrophobic horizon: rocky crags squashed under a moody sky.

With sidelights, footlights, overhead spots and coloured gels, lighting designer Jeff Harrison manages to turn this barebones layout into anything from a dorm room to a tundra to a basement isolation cell to a dive bar to a corporate executive suite. A live quartet – piano, violin, viola and guitar – plays almost non-stop to underscore the 15 original songs and provide mood music to link the scenes.

But, for all its minimalist staging, earnest moralism and conservative scripting/scoring, the play’s complex plot demands a lot from its actors and audience, alike. It braids together seven interlocking storylines:

-       A teenager (Cheyenne Scott), docked in isolation for a runaway attempt, is raped and impregnated by a holier-than-thou priest (Michael Torontow).   

-       Her kid brother (Herbie Barnes) struggles to recollect their pre-kidnapping life, to get out word of their plight and to guide his sister on another runaway bid. But before they can set out, she hangs herself in despair.

-       A neophyte nun (Trish Lindström), learning the truth of the case, loses her faith in the school and its mission.

-       The traumatised brother, now grown, suppresses his pain, never even relating the fact or manner of his sister’s death to their mother (Cathy Elliott).

-       Recovering from alcoholism, he applies for a desk job in town to get his life back on track. His job interviewer turns out to be the class bully (Kevin Loring) from Res School days, who’s now “gone white” and made good. They argue and work themselves up to a fistfight in a dive bar.

-       Back home, still jobless and relapsed into drink, Barnes’ character finally spills the story of his sister’s suicide.

-       The grieving mother and son return to the now-disused school site to recap – at first tentatively and then ecstatically – a half-remembered tribal rite of passage for the sister’s departed spirit.

Nor are these narratives laid out in straightforward chronology, but rather intercut in flashbacks and premonitions, with no blackouts or set changes to set off one scene from the next. Instead, we to rely on subtle shifts of body language and on-the-fly costume changes to demarcate the hellish past from the anguished present.

Barnes, Loring and Scott brilliantly execute the most daunting of acting feats: for an adult player to plausibly portray a juvenile character. Even more impressive, the two male leads then manage to segue convincingly into adult incarnations of the same roles. What’s more, they bring it all off while singing half the time, including some rather intricate ensemble numbers.

Non-indigenous stars ably hold up their end of the action. Torontow’s hypocritical prig of a priest is the very picture of unctuous sanctimony. And Lindström scores the musical high point of the evening with a solo aria at her moment of faith-shattering epiphany.

The climactic scene, after having probed the dystopian Truth of the Residential Schools, makes an inspiriting bid for Reconciliation with the final rite of passage ritual. By now, the drama has already transformed both native and settler characters alike.

As Barnes’ character reminds the shaken nun, “you have your guilt, we have our sorrow.” But the entire cast comes out on stage – clergy now defrocked – to join in the redemptive chant. And presently the audience rises to join hands and sway to the accelerating drumbeat.

Not a dry eye in the house, as far as I could see.

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