In Drew Hayden Taylor’s gripping play, a residential-school survivor comes face-to-face with the Anglican minister she believes sexually abused her.
God and the Indian
Aki Studio (585 Dundas Street East)
Runs to May 17
$15 – $25
God hasn’t been good to the Indian. That is, if by “God” you mean Canada’s Anglican, Catholic, and United churches; and if by “Indian” you mean the indigenous peoples. As we now know all too well, for more than a century this country’s church-run residential school system not only practised cultural genocide, forcing thousands of indigenous children to assimilate into a Christian, Eurocentric society; it also ran rife with neglect, cruelty, and physical and sexual abuse.
God and the Indian by First Nations playwright Drew Hayen Taylor, currently receiving its Toronto premiere from Native Earth Performing Arts in the Daniels Spectrum’s Aki Studio, has arrived at the right time. It comes only weeks before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will finally wrap up its seven-year inquiry into the residential schools. (A closing event is being held May 31-June 3 in Ottawa.) But, as this play reminds us, there’s still a lot of healing to be done.
Taylor’s drama imagines a confrontation between an Anglican minister who once taught at a residential school and a former student who accuses him of sexually abusing her. But while it deals with events in the past—the Beatles’ wistful song “Yesterday” ends up taking on an ironic and chilling meaning—it also makes palpable the gulf that still exists between the privileged white society that created the schools, and the indigenous people whose lives they destroyed.
George King (played by Thomas Hauff) is a robust, dapper, late-middle-aged white man who adores his family and loves a good cup of coffee. A faithful servant of the Anglican Church, he’s just been elevated to the post of assistant bishop. His accuser, who calls herself Johnny Indian (Lisa C. Ravensbergen), is a sick, scruffy, homeless First Nations woman who can barely beg enough change for a bottle of cheap sherry. Their two worlds collide after he deigns to visit a Tim Hortons and she spots him from her curbside post outside the store.
Barging into his office, Johnny claims she knows King from a school called St. David’s. King doesn’t recognize her, but freely admits to teaching there briefly some 40 years ago. Johnny, however, thinks he did more than that—she has traumatic recollections of nighttime visits to the girls’ dormitory by a pedophilic teacher who was fond of crooning “Yesterday.”
King insists it wasn’t him—for one thing, he preferred folk music—but then, he’s got a lot to lose if such criminal conduct were exposed. At the same time, Johnny’s memory could well be faulty. After all, she’s spent a hard life blighted by alcoholism, and her erratic behaviour suggests she could be mentally unstable. When King tries to get her help, she unplugs the office phone, pockets his cell, and pulls out a gun.
While the mystery of whether King really was Johnny’s abuser drives the plot, it’s not Taylor’s main concern. His real focus is on the damage that was done. As Johnny reveals the downward spiral of her life, which began not just with the abuse, but with the mysterious death of her little brother in the school’s custody, we get a sad but familiar picture of an individual left disconnected from her roots and marginalized by society, who numbs her pain with booze. We’d be profoundly depressed if Johnny wasn’t so sharp and witty. She may be ailing and desperate, but that doesn’t stop her from taking funny digs at Anglican depictions of a blond, blue-eyed Jesus, or jokingly discussing the merits of Lysol as a buzz. “Your breath smells pine fresh,” she informs King.
Taylor—who is himself, in his own words, a “blue-eyed Ojibway” (he’s part Caucasian)—is a humorist as well as a playwright, and is known for applying a light touch to serious subjects in plays such as the Dora Award–winning Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth. That stands him in good stead here, where the subject would be overwhelmingly bleak if it weren’t for those occasional rays of comedy—black comedy though it may be. And in Johnny, he’s written a powerful part for an older First Nations actress.
Tantoo Cardinal originated the role when God and the Indian had its 2013 debut at Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre. For this revised version, a co-production with Firehall (where it returns later this month), we have B.C.-based actress Ravensbergen, who is less well known but no less talented. Her Johnny is stunningly effective. Stringy haired, wrapped in the multiple layers of clothing of someone who lives on the street, she hobbles about painfully but remains mentally nimble. She often seems less angry than bitterly sardonic, which is likely what you become when you no longer have much hope of any kind of reparation—or happiness—in this life.
Hauff is well-cast as King, giving a degree of mild-mannered likability to an otherwise irritable and impatient character. But, on opening night, the actor occasionally had a slippery grasp on his lines. (You’d like to think his confusing “Catholic” and “Anglican” at one point is a sly joke on the part of Taylor—hey, the white man’s religions all look the same—but I’m afraid it’s not in the script.)
Director Renae Morriseau’s staging is sometimes awkward, while Lauchlin Johnson’s set and lighting are serviceable but could make better use of a subtle effect that has ghostly images from Johnny’s school days—her dorm bed, Christmas oranges—briefly appear in the windows of King’s office. These complement a supernatural theme that Taylor weaves throughout the play, which culminates in a weak O. Henry–style ending. It’s an unsatisfactory conclusion to what is otherwise a gripping play.