When Marie Clements' The Road Forward played Club PuSh for one night only as part of the 2013 PuSh Festival I ended my blog post on that performance by noting that the show needed to come back and be seen by a larger audience. Mercifully, PuSh AED Norman Armour got the message and at this year's Festival the work returns for a three night run at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive, in a co-presentation with The Cultch and Touchstone Theatre.
First presented as a ten-minute multi-media installation at the Aboriginal Pavilion during the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad, the work has developed over the past five years into a full-length theatrical concert. Or is it a rock musical? An illustrated song cycle? As Clements noted earlier in the day in conversation with me on the Cultch's Historic Theatre stage, she doesn't worry too much about generic categories. What's most important is the story that needs to be told; it's the story that dictates the form.
In the case of The Road Forward, the story is based on Clements' research into the archives of the Native Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) of British Columbia (NBCC), formed in 1931 and Canada's oldest active advocacy group on First Nations issues. In particular, Clements was astounded to discover and read through back issues of the NBCC's newspaper, The Native Voice, which became a powerful mouthpiece for and documentary record of Indigenous social justice activism--and not just along the coast of BC, but across Canada and the Americas. Video projections of scanned pages from The Native Voice appear throughout the evening and it is both astounding to see what the NBCC was fighting for 50 years ago and dispiriting to see what battles have yet to be fully won today.
Working with lead composer and musical director Jennifer Kreisberg, Clements, as writer, director and producer, has turned this history into a series of nineteen songs that marry celebration and lament, resistance and requiem, all with a driving drum beat that announces unambiguously Indigenous presence, sovereignty and futurity. This is also represented for us generationally on stage, with the cast of seventeen comprised of elders (for example, Latash Maurice Nahanee and Delhia Nahanee, of the Squamish and Nisga'a nations), their direct descendants (Amanda Nahaneee and Marissa Nahanee), and a wider network of relations. (Regrettably, Kreisberg's son Wakinyan RedShirt was ill with a fever and could not perform alongside his mother.)
The size of the cast, though a challenge logistically (they are squeezed even on the larger York Theatre stage), reflects Clements' commitment to marshalling and presenting to audiences the wealth of Indigenous performance talent from across the Americas. The heart and soul of this particular group are the three magnificent divas--Kreisberg, Cheri Maracle, and Michelle St. John (Clements' co-artistic director of red diva projects)--whose combined fierceness and vocal power quite literally "take [our] words away" (to paraphrase the song, sung by Russell Wallace, that introduces them). Harkening back to the classic African-American girl groups of the Motown era, this trio likewise sings a blues- and gospel-inflected repertoire of survival in spite of suffering, with each woman being given a thumping solo (Maracle on "This is How it Goes," Kreisberg on "1965" and the tiny St. John bringing down the house on "Thunderstruck") that showcases not just her extraordinary pipes, but also her indomitability of spirit. Kreisberg and Maracle also harmonize in haunting fashion on "My Girl's Song," a mournful lament for the Aboriginal girls and women who have been murdered or gone missing along BC's Highway of Tears. I would be remiss if I did not mention the groovy vocalizations of the trio on the classic Patti Labelle anthem "Lady Marmalade," which had me bopping my head and tapping my feet in absolute delight. A shout out as well to bassist Shakti Hayes, who takes a turn at the microphone for "Good God," a bitterly ironic ode to the religious indoctrination generations of Indigenous children were subjected to as part of the Residential School system in Canada.
Not to be outdone, the men of The Road Forward also shine. Special mention must go to co-composer, lead guitarist, and band leader Wayne Lavallee, who has a classic rock star voice in the vein of Robert Plant (plus the hair to match). Drummer Richard Brown kept a low profile visually at the back of the stage, but we registered his beats aurally throughout the performance. Keyboardist Murray Porter rocks out on the classic tune "Come and Get Your Love," by the legendary Native American and Mexican American rock band Redbone; later Porter is also compelling in inviting us to come aboard the "Constitution Express." That song references an important cross-Canada consciousness-raising event led by George Manuel in advance of the repatriation of the Canadian constitution. Another important speech by Manuel, "If You Really Believe," serves as the basis of a riveting spoken word performance by Ostwelve, who also contributes the rap "All My Relations" to the final title song of the evening, which brings the full company together.
Seeing and hearing this show at the York was a powerful experience--we even got to don 3D glasses at the end to witness Native masks and and other iconic images pop out at us. But it needs an even bigger stage, a venue where we can not only listen, but also dance. It needs, in short, a cross-Canada stadium tour, complete with a red diva projects booth selling T-shirts and CDs. Clements was necessarily sanguine about the show's prospects following this revival when I asked her the what next question earlier in the day, citing the energy and the timing and especially the money to make something like a multi-city tour happen. But if there's anybody who can do it, it's Marie Clements.