The Cultch
Children of God by Corey Payette

Dates and Venue May 17 – June 3, 2017, 7pm (2pm matinees on May 21, 28 & June 3) | York Theatre, Commercial Drive

Director Corey Payette Production Design Marshall McMahen Dramaturg Sybille Pearson Lighting Design Jeff Harrison Sound Design Kris Boyd Movement Director Raes Calvert Stage Manager Samira Rose Musicians Brian Chan – Cello, Allen Cole – Piano, Martin Reisle – Guitar, Elliot Vaughan – Viola

Reviewer John Jane

The Indian Residential School System existed in Canada for a little over a hundred years until 1996, when the last government funded school closed. The program has since become a black blot on the nation’s psyche. The schools were largely administered by Christian churches or other sectarian groups. Such administrations were allowed to remove aboriginal children from their communities and even their parents and force them into attending schools where they were subjected to severe discipline and harsh treatment. While it’s accepted that (some) teachers and administrators may have had good intentions, the prime purpose for the program was assimilation, not education.

It’s in this backdrop that Children of God, a musical drama written and composed by Corey Payette, an Oji-Cree from Northern Ontario, finds its advocacy. When Payette, in his introductory remarks, advised patrons that emotional support volunteers would be available for the benefit of those who might find the heavy content too much to bear, we knew that this was going to be an intense play.

Even Production Designer Marshall McMahen’s imaginative set is bleak and relies heavily on Jeff Harrison’s dramatic lighting to give it any kind of tone and texture. Payette as director uses a time-shifting device to illustrate the effect of extreme schooling on an Oji-Cree family over a twenty year time span. I found it to be initially confusing since the same actors (Herbie Barnes and Kevin Loring) are used both in the roles of children and adults. Overall though, production values are top notch with (almost) seamless scene changes brought about with props and clothing moved on and off stage by cast members themselves.

Corey Payette’s sixteen well-crafted songs bestrewed throughout the show drive the narrative as much as the powerful dialogue. From the solemn anthem “God Only Knows” (nothing like the Brian Wilson song) that kicks off the show to the plaintive “Gimikwenden Ina” (Do you remember?) sung partly in the Ojibwe language. Trish Lindstrom’s poignant solo “Their Spirits Are Broken” as the guilt-ridden Sister Bernadette is absolutely heart-breaking.

The mainly indigenous cast offer stellar performances on a stage that has served their community well recently. Herbie Barnes (Tommy/Tom) in particular overcomes obvious physical limitations in portraying a juvenile by his acting versatility, switching back and forth between a simple, playful child and a bitter adult. Michael Torontow, one of only two non-indigenous actors, is outstanding, without seeking the audience’s empathy, in the emotionally difficult role as the stern Father Christopher. His and Trish Lindstrom’s performances exposes the belief that the schools were as much a prison for the teachers as for the students.

Children of God is a story of redemption. Payette’s hope is that it might lead to a deeper understanding of the first nation’s place in history and an acknowledgement of their present adversity. Payette’s play should certainly be seen by anyone, religious or secular, who has an impassioned sense of injustice.

This Urban Ink production moves to the National Arts Centre, Ottawa closing their season and opening Canada Scene, a celebration of the most outstanding and ambitious work that has taken place in Canada.

© 2017 John Jane