Corey Payette's ambitious and urgently important new musical, Children of God, had its world premiere last night at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive, in a co-presentation between Urban Ink, Raven Theatre, The Cultch, and the National Arts Centre, to which the work will tour later in June. The polymathic Payette is the book writer, composer, lyricist and director of the work, which has been seven years in development, and which aims to tell through the popular and often insistently sunny form of musical theatre a story about one of the darkest chapters of Canadian history, namely the lives, cultural identity and sense of family connection stolen from a generation of Indigenous children in this country as a result of the residential school system, as well as the intergenerational trauma that continues to resound from these events.
The work is structurally complex, adopting a split timeframe in which present day Tom (an excellent Herbie Barnes), recently separated from his wife and back living at home on the reserve with his mother, Rita (Cathy Elliott, in a shattering performance), is trying to get back on his feet by hopefully landing a new job with Wilson (Kevin Loring), a former classmate at a Catholic residential school. The meeting with Wilson stirs up painful memories, which unfold in flashbacks, and in which we learn that little Tommy's sister Julia (Cheyenne Scott, who has a beautifully soaring voice) has attempted more than once to run away from the school--not least, as we eventually discover, to flee the sexual predation of the school's main priest, Father Christopher (Michael Torontow). When Sister Bernadette (Trish Lindstrom, very affecting in an emotionally demanding and complex role) discovers this abuse, and also the pregnancy that results, the impasse of inaction that results from the conflict between her obedience to her faith's chain of command and what she knows in her heart to be wrong leads to a series of tragic events that will mark all of the students at the school, including Wilson's younger brother Vincent (Aaron M. Wells) and Julia's friends Joanna (Kim Harvey) and Elizabeth (Kaitlyn Yott).
Payette compresses all of this action into a tight two acts, and the actor-driven transitions between scenes and timeframes are handled smoothly and efficiently, with old-style iron dormitory beds and a row of wooden desks, among other material signifiers, enough to sketch the enforced erasure of the children's Indigenous identities through sameness and spatial enclosure from their communities. Likewise, the songs and musical score are excellent, advancing both the narrative and emotional journeys of the characters in compelling ways, alternating deftly between rousing ensemble numbers and intimate solos, and also providing numerous transcendent moments of audience identification and empathy that we crave from the musical theatre form. Payette is an incredibly gifted composer and lyricist, though I was a bit surprised at how much of this work hued to classic western musical idioms (the musicians include Brian Chan on cello, Allen Cole on piano, Martin Reisle on guitar, and Elliot Vaughan on viola). The exception comes in two numbers accompanied by traditional drumming and sung in Ojibwe: Gimikwenden Ina (Do You Remember?) is a joyous ode to the survival of cultural memory sung by the residential school students near the end of the first act that is accompanied by a simple yet absolutely stunning bit of choreography that transforms a bedsheet into the surface of a drum, and that I thought should have closed the first act rather than the darker number that followed; and Baamaapii Ka Wab Migo (Until We See You Again) is at once a lament and a celebration of Julia's spirit led by Rita at the end of the musical that insistently rises in pitch and rhythm and emotional intensity until it envelopes not just the rest of the cast and musicians, all of whom join Rita and Tom on stage, but sweeps across the entire audience, with everyone standing, clasping hands and joining in the chorus as a resurrected Julia appears in a bright red dress and wafts up the aisle as she is sent on her journey to the other side.
That ending is one of the more memorable I have seen in the theatre, musical or otherwise, in a long time. However, dramaturgically, the work is not perfect. Having the male residential school children played by adult actors, while understandable in terms of the work's structure and the inevitable limited resources accompanying such a production, was somewhat jarring given that the women playing the female children were much closer in age to their characters. The vexed relationship between Tom and Rita, the ultimate repairing of which over the course of the musical speaks to the heart of the issue of intergenerational trauma that is one of the most damaging legacies of the residential school system, gets somewhat buried among the many strands of Children's plot. We understand that Tom partly blames his mother for abandoning him and his sister when they needed her most; but we only witness Rita being rebuffed in her efforts to visit her children in one brief scene in the first act, and the tortuous guilt that she carries within her is only fully revealed at the end of the musical. An ironic consequence of consigning this story of fractured Indigenous kinship structures to the margins of the story is that the relationship between Father Christopher and Sister Bernadette comes all the more to the fore. To be sure, in taking pains to sketch out the various hierarchical and patriarchal structures propping up the Catholic residential school system, Payette is seeking to complexify a story in which it would be easy to condemn all teachers and white authority figures as part of the system and thus worthy of condemnation. At the same time, I found myself wondering on more than one occasion last night why it was that I found my sympathies gravitating as much toward Sister Bernadette as towards Tom and Julia and Rita.
No doubt such a response says as much about me, as a settler theatregoer, as it does about this amazing exploration through performance of what meaningful truth and reconciliation might look like in this country. Caveats aside, Children of God is a powerful work of living history and it should be seen by audiences across Canada.