By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“How can our land not be fertile when so much blood, both Ukrainian and foreign, has seeped into it?”
Five years ago Lianna Makuch discovered a handwritten book that would have a seismic impact on her creative life as a theatre artist.
It was the 1944 journal in which her grandmother chronicled her emigration from Ukraine. She fled a war-ravaged homeland that was trapped between the competing brutalities of of the Soviets and the Third Reich. And her writing was breathtakingly eloquent. “It shows that our enemies must love our land more than we do, for they fight for it ceaselessly,” writes Makuch’s grandmother. “Will we live to see that moment when our people join the circle of free nations?”
“Such an intelligent, intuitive woman,” says Makuch of the Baba with whom she and her sisters spent their summers as they grew up. “And in her own way an artist, a Ukrainian folk artist.” Makuch remembers her grandmother traumatized by night terrors, screaming in her sleep. The recurring motif of those terrible nightmares was “people coming to steal us.”
The inspiration of the woman herself, both sets of her grandparents, and that powerful first-hand World War II chronicle of a flight made on foot continued to reverberate for Makuch. And she made a play, as theatre artists are wont to do.
Blood Of Our Soil, premiering Thursday on the Westbury stage in a Pyretic production directed by Patrick Lundeen, is that play, full of Ukrainian folk music and dance, two intense years in the making. It “brings her journal to life,” says Makuch of a play she describes as “semi-autobiographical.”
The discovery of the journal five years ago had a companion piece in the news of the day. In 2013 a revolution happened in Ukraine, when the Kremlin puppet government formalized closer ties to Russia, instead of to the European Union. As Makuch explains, “what began as a peaceful demonstration in Independence Square in Kiev,attracted a million people. And protests continued for three months….”
“That was the catalyst,” says Makuch of Blood of Our Soil. The eve of our Family Day holiday “was the four-year anniversary of one of the deadliest fights of the revolution…. Huge for the Ukrainian diaspora, huge for my family. And my grandmother’s words, ‘will we live to see that moment …?’ really ring true.”
The Ukraine’s struggle has continued, lo these many decades — witness political complications, and the aggression of Russian-back separatists in eastern Ukraine. To Makuch, for whom the Ukrainian culture is a defining part of her identity, it invited a double-optic.
Hania, the character through whose eyes we discover the world in Blood of Our Soil, is, like Makuch, “a Ukrainian Canadian trying to understand her cultural inheritance.” She travels to her ancestral homeland, so beautiful and so traumatized by a war that may have slid from the slippery slope of the world’s headlines, but has never ended.
Which is exactly what Makuch, Lundeen and fellow playwright/dramaturg Matthew MacKenzie (Bears, Bone Wars) did in October, 2017. More on this eye-opening trip momentarily.
A year ago, Pyretic Productions had workshopped a production that drew from the journal and personal stories and memories from both sets of Makuch’s grandparents. It touched on the current conflict in Ukraine. And, says Makuch, it seemed to touch a shared, bruised heart. “We were really successful…. The Ukrainian community responded resoundingly. And people drove in from from Ukrainian communities outside Edmonton wanting to see the show.”
“Afterward, people pulled me aside to tell me this own stories, stories about their own grandparents.” It was, she says, an vindication of the power of theatre, and the way “the personal can become the political.”
Strathcona MP Linda Duncan, who came to see it, referenced the play in Parliament in a debate (led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland) about this country’s role in Operation Unifier, in eastern Ukraine. “That emboldened the project,” says Makuch.
But to continue, Makuch needed to be on location. She “gathered the troops,” she laughs. Pyretic Productions went to Ukraine. First, the trio sought out the ancestral villages of her grandparents, including the one from which her journal-writing Baba had fled. “I saw the house she grew up in,” says Makuch of a big M Moment, “a cute little pink cottage on a little plot of land. She had described the mountains, and you see the rolling hills.”
In her grandfather’s village, the graveyard was overgrown, but in the brush, the Pyretic trio managed to find the tombstones of Makuch’s great-great grandparents. In the village of her maternal grandmother, who’d been abducted by the Germans, there was no trace of house or document. In a film-worthy encounter, they ran into “two old babas on a park bench, and they remembered my her.” And in the ensuing conversational complications, “my great grandmother’s brother’s grandchild” came bounding out of a house. “She greeted me as if I were her own daughter! She showed me pictures and scarves, and letters from my grandmother in the ‘70s.”
The experience was emotional and dramatic, and had its funny moments too. Linden and MacKenzie speak zero Ukrainian; in the countryside where English was non-existent they relied entirely on Makuch’s language skills. “They were hopeless!” she laughs. “I left them alone for one day. They got lost. They somehow ended up spending 80 Canadian dollars for lunch — in a country where the average dinner might be 10 bucks.”
The first part of the trip was a family pilgrimmage. The second took them near the front lines of the conflict. “I’m taken aback by how little Canadians know about it. “During the revolution, it was a hot topic. But it feels like, four years later, it’s kind of faded into the background….”
In Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, Makuch and her Pyretic compatriots hired a “fixer”/translator to help set up interviews. They met war veterans and displaced people (there are three million in Ukraine). They approached the front lines, and saw signs where the people had painted poppies around the bullet holes.
In the Russia-supported rebel strongholds near Donetsk, people are living in their cellars. Eight kilometres from the danger zone, they’ve become acclimatized to the nightly boom of mortar attacks and shelling. “I’ve never heard anything like what I heard, and people didn’t even flinch,” Makuch says.
The three were apprehensive about being thought “disaster tourists,” Makuch says. “Would people resent us? As soon as they discovered we weren’t journalists they reacted positively, and opened up to us…. A lot didn’t want to be filmed and we were OK with that.” One veteran said he thought that artists, in their own way, were like soldiers. “It was very inspiring; people thanked us for coming, and for telling their stories…. Blood of Our Soil is a play, yes, but it feels like more than that.”
In true multi-disciplinary Pyretic style — which Edmonton audiences have seen in such productions as Bears and The Other — there’s a chorus of dancers (choreographer: Alida Kendell) who become the landscape, the people, the places. There’s music (assembled and arranged by Larissa Pohoreski). And there’s an immersive projection design, which Nicholas Mayne (“a genius with technology,” says Makuch) has fashioned from photos the trio shot in Ukraine.
“Act I is more historical. In Act II, the chorus becomes the people we met, with first-hand accounts.” There’s a lobby installation that chronicles 100 years of Ukrainian history. And on March 2, there’s a panel discussion with MP Duncan and war veteran Dmytro Lavrenchuk.
“It’s a blend of personal heritage and artistry,” says Makuch of her labour of love. “And it’s been an honour to bring it to life.”
Blood Of Our Soil
Theatre: Pyretic Productions in association with Punctuate! Theatre and Theatre of the New Heart
Written by: Lianna Makuch
Directed by: Patrick Lundeen
Starring: Lianna Makuch, Oscar Derkx, Julia Guy, Maxwell Lebeuf, Tanya Pacholok, Larissa Pohoreski
Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: March 1 to 9
Tickets: 780-409-1910, tickets.fringetheatre.ca