Marie Clements' The Unnatural and Accidental Women premiered at the Firehall Arts Centre in November 2000, two years before the arrest of Robert Pickton in connection with the cases of more than 65 murdered and missing women (many of them Indigenous) from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES). Clements' play is a haunting and highly theatrical dramatization of the lives of several Indigenous women preyed upon by another real-life serial killer in the DTES, Gilbert Paul Jordon, a barber implicated in the alcohol poisoning deaths of at least ten women between the mid-1960s and 1980s. Clements' title is taken from the coroner's reports on several of these women, which listed their deaths as "unnatural and accidental." Although he eventually served six years from manslaughter, Jordan was never convicted of murder: indeed, a terrible irony is that coinciding with the play's premiere a newspaper article appeared noting that Jordan was living on probation in the Vancouver area.
Fifteen years later, Clements' play is being remounted as the Spring 2015 mainstage show by SFU Contemporary Arts' Theatre Program. This time, there is another, more salutary coincidence of timing to note: the SFU production, which opened at Woodward's on Thursday and runs to March 7, is taking place just as Indigenous, provincial, territorial and federal leaders are gathering in Ottawa for a National Roundtable on Murdered and Missing Women in Canada. More proximately, director Steven Hill is interested in asking what it means to stage a work that explores the social conditions that allow Jordan and Pickton and other men to prey upon Indigenous women with apparent impunity in an institutional setting that abuts the very site of these women's marginalization and victimization.
In answering that question, Hill faced an immediate dilemma: his cast of student actors would be all non-Indigenous. How, then, to do justice to Clements' text without perpetuating additional representational violence upon the lives and memories of Indigenous women in BC and the rest of Canada? In consultation with the playwright (who, after all, gave her blessing to the production) and dramaturge Lindsay Lachance, among others, Hill's solution was in fact to prioritize the authority of the text. In the first act, which is comprised of a series of looping short scenes focusing on the increasing isolation of several women immediately preceding their deaths, company members, having first introduced themselves and the role(s) they will be playing, largely read directly from the text while seated at a long table in the middle of the studio stage (the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre has been reconfigured from its usual proscenium configuration to in-the-round, a point to which I will return). Guest readers--last night UBC First Nations Studies student Matt Ward and actress and singer Renae Morriseau--take turns reciting the stage directions, with some of the described actions and sound and visual effects materializing on the raised platforms encircling the audience and others being left to our imaginations. Hill's point, which he elaborated upon in the talkback that followed the performance, is that when Jordan's victims most lack agency it felt unethical to have the actors inhabit their roles naturalistically. I would add that the Brechtian alienation effect of having the cast narrate rather than play their parts also draws attention to the fact that for most of us in the audience these otherwise invisible women's lives only become meaningful--and knowable--to us through local media's spectucularized interest in the eventfulness of their deaths. This point is reinforced by Clements' call for black and white newspaper-style projections announcing each successive life lost. As Aunt Shadie says at one point in the play, "Being invisible can kill you."
However, in the second act of Clements' play the dead women come together to form a community that provides healing for the violence of their past lives and, as importantly, that helps to forestall Jordan claiming in the present yet another victim: the central character of Rebecca, who is seeking closure around the disappearance of her mother. In these scenes, when the women begin to reclaim in death what they were denied in life (including the physicality and sensuality of their bodies), it felt right to have the actors begin to enact the roles independent of the text (though the stage directions do continue to be read out). Most of that action takes place above and behind the audience, on a square of raised platforms. The only things that take place in the central space in front of us are the reading of the stage directions, the live preparation and cooking of banock, and Morriseau's singing and drumming--the latter activities a reminder that Clements' play ends in a celebratory feast. This "lateralizing" of the otherwise vertical set that Clements calls for in her playscript is a partly necessary concession to the incredible complexity of the playwright's design conception; at the same time, it puts the onus on the audience not to remain passive in our seats. We have to actively turn our heads and twist this way and that and, most especially, listen carefully in order to take in these women's stories.
As Morisseau put it to the audience in the talkback, we cannot remain mere spectators to Clements' play and the events upon which it is based. We must be witnesses. Witnesses have a duty to respond to the story. What are you going to do with the story, Morisseau bluntly asked.