By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the musical that opens at the Citadel Thursday, you’ll meet a smart kid with potential and hopes, a dreamer with a sense of possibility.
And then school happens.
You’ll meet Tom years later, in a family torn apart by official oppression, and feel in your bones the terrible price tag of cultural dislocation, and the ripple effect of trauma through generations.
Seven years in the making, Children of God is Canadian through and through — in its heartbreaking story, its creation, its nine-member cast and band of four. It brings to mainstages across the country for the first time an Indigenous story that belongs to all us, a story from our shared history long shrouded in silence. And it gives voices that have been mute for 150 years songs to sing and dances to dance.
It’s the story of the residential schools that systematically set about “taking the Indian out of the child,” as its dazzlingly multi-talented Oji-Cree creator Corey Payette puts it in his forthright fashion.
And it moves that story in the highly accessible framework of the musical theatre, as its engaging writer/ composer/ lyricist/ director Payette, artistic director of Vancouver’s Urban Ink Productions, explained over lunch last week.
Children of God “started seven years ago from a place of anger and frustration,” says the artist with the starry talent set and communication skills to match. “Growing up in northern Ontario, we just weren’t taught about residential schools; it was kept from us,” says Payette. “The extent of the narrative was that the First People were here and now they’re gone…. That was about it.”
”My grandmother spent her whole life telling people she was French,” says Payette, who grew up in the little Ontario town of New Liskeard (now Temiskaming Shores). “Why would you tell people you were Indigenous? She figured people would think you’re lazy, and you wouldn’t get a job.” Residential schools? “Not something we talk about,” ” the young Payette and his sister got told.
It was that silence, and silencing, that launched Payette into writing Children of God, he says. He travelled around B.C. meeting residential school survivors and their families; he visited residential school sites, many abandoned and some, as in Kamloops, reclaimed. In fact, an early workshop of Children of God happened in the chapel of a Kamloops residential school turned community centre, on Tk’emlúps First Nations territory. And it was, says Payette feelingly, “the most profound experience of my life….”
Survivors who’d gone to school there and their families (who brought gifts) told him “you need to do this work everywhere in Canada, and not just for Indigenous people!”
“There was a real grace that was shown to me by so many survivors,” he says. “And I felt, I knew, that every Canadian needs to know this history, the history of the Canada they received…. All of us!”
“It’s an opportunity for our settler allies to experience the story seen through the eyes of Indigenous people,” says Payette of his creation. “What would it have been like if it had been your child? Once people put themselves in those shoes, we’re going to see huge changes!”
It was a survivor in Williams Lake, B.C. who “changed the development of the show in a big way,” he says of the turning point moment the show embraced “healing and forhgiveness, not just anger…. He told me that if he had not forgiven he would have died.” And he had the tragic stories to prove it, friends consumed by alcohol, drugs, despair.
“There we were, sitting on the back of a pick-up truck together and I was so struck by the enormous resilience and strength of survivors — to grieve their losses, and still hold a life together…. What does it take?” Payette pauses to consider. “I don’t know that I have it in me. It seems impossible.”
”That was the journey that led to the show.”
And, as Payette points out, it’s not as if residential schools can be shelved as a historical relic. “We’re only one circle out from that; the last one was closed in 1996! In my generation there were kids growing up who’d been to schools in the Northwest Territories!”
“If people knew that, they would have a different understanding,” Payette argues energetically. And he explains that Children of God happens in two time periods, 1950 and 1970, in order to convey something of the lasting trauma of a blistering system. We catch up with Tom, the little dreamer, 20 years later back on the reserve when he’s living on a couch at his mom’s house.
“He’s lost his job; he’s given up drinking finally. And at a job interview he meets a classmate of his from the residential school and starts to have flashbacks of a part of his life he’s pushed down….”
Children of God was always going to be a musical, says Payette — not least because of his own pedigree. “I’ve always been a musician; that’s how I started out, with a record deal when I was really young.” At York University, studying musical composition, he got theatre gigs to make money, starting with his debut in Grease at CanStage, at 19. In Toronto he wrote music for Shakespeare adaptations; he got musical director gigs on new musicals.
When he started working on Children of God, Payette still would have identified as a composer, not a playwright, he says. “But I just felt I couldn’t not write the story.” Four years into its development he studied musical theatre writing with guru Sybil Pearson at NYU. And she even accompanied Payette and his cast to Kamloops to try the piece out with audiences.
In a profound way, he says, Children of God had to be a musical; the musical theatre form suits the storytelling perfectly. In Indigenous culture, as he explains, “you cannot tell a story without having a song. And you cannot have that song without a dance…. It’s built into the heart of the culture, that multi-disciplinary performance storytelling.”
“It felt very natural,” Payette says of the natural escalation of big deep feeling into music. “For me, musicals work best when the songs are used to express emotions that are beyond words.” And since the narrative of residential schools is all about silencing people, separating them forcibly from their language, the traditional musical theatre form is, however unexpectedly, an eloquent fit.
The 19 songs are mostly in English, sometimes in Ojibwe. And just hearing Indigenous language onstage is a dramatic and moving experience for many survivors.
Payette, who’s currently working on another musical Les Filles du Roi, premiering this spring at the Cultch in Vancouver, has found it momentous to tour Children of God to Canada’s big theatres, with mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.
Four years ago, when he pitched his residential school musical to artistic directors across the country, he heard No again and again. Honourable exception to Jillian Keiley at the National Arts Centre and the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran who supported its development in his time at Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, (he programmed Children of God into his first season here even before it had premiered in Vancouver). “What a fantastic gesture of confidence!” Payette exclaims.
The No’s have turned to Yes’s, with further national and international tours in the works. “It’s an exciting time! Artistic directors get it! It’s a different conversation now!.”
Children of God
Theatre: Urban Ink Productions at the Citadel
Created and directed by: Corey Payette
Starring: Cheyenne Scott, Sandy Scofield, Michelle Bardach, Raes Calver, Sarah Carle, Dillan Chiblow, David Keeley, Aaron M. Wells, Kaitlyn Yott
Running: through March 24
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com