Review by Ellen S. Jaffe Mar. 20, ‘19
Isitwendam, written and performed by Meegwun Fairbrother is a powerful, emotional, and beautifully-crafted play , well worth seeing. The play, a Bound To Create Theatre (B2C) Production, is having its world premiere in Toronto, presented by native Earth Performing Arts at the Aki Studio. It was co-created and directed by Jack Grinhaus. Isitwendam means “an understanding,” and this one-act play shows how theatre, with its blend of physicality, emotion, language, and appeal to our senses, can give us a deeper, fuller understanding of, and empathy with, a complex situation. The play begins with a mysterious, graceful dance performed by Fairbrother, against a background of changing light and shadow – ending with a flashing light and a sense of terror.
It tells the story of a young half-Ojibway man, Bryan White, raised in Newmarket, who begins his journey seeking an Internship with the Conservative Party shortly after Harper’s 2008 apology for the residential school system and its abuses, carried from one generation to another. He dresses in a suit and tie – but struggles with the tie, which seems to be strangling him. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs sends him to a reserve near Kenora, Ontario, to “disprove” the story of an Elder, Victoria, who is claiming money and land from the government for abuse she suffered at a residential school. Once on the reserve, his presence seems strangely familiar to people; they call him “Little Thunderbird” and tell him about a painter who used to live there. His journey for self-discovery, for truth and reconciliation, has begun.
I won’t reveal the surprising and yet totally authentic ending. Fairbrother plays several characters in a way I’ve never seen in a one-person show, transforming himself completely, into a politician, an older Indigenous man, the old woman Victoria – and several others. His portrayal of Victoria is particularly poignant and powerful. The character changes are created through his own voice, body, and actions, helped by a beautiful, simple but complex set created by Hans Saeflow, with lighting by Melissa Joachim and projections by Andy Moro, assisted by Joachim. The basic set is a wooden circular form, like a medicine wheel, with rays that make me think of the sun. Behind it is a similar, larger wooden structure. Over this structure, a scrim is used, with both back-lighting and projections, to show many scenic elements: the lights of the universe and the sun; an airplane, a car, a motel room, a bar scene. In addition, front-lighting is used with dramatic effect. The set also allows the actor to move within it, creating different levels and dimensions. This beautifully-crafted design helps give unity and atmosphere to the production. Sound design, another vital element, is by Marc Merilainen. I do not have the name of the costume designer, but the costumes are excellent, and help define each character.
Throughout the story, Bryan’s cell-phone conversations with his mother move the plot along, and also show how he is discovering his authentic identity, which also changes his relationship with his mom. Fairbrother writes in the program notes, “In creating this piece, I transformed a lot of anger and hurt about Canada and its treatment of Indigenous people. Our past is hard to reconcile. It just is. But we all share the land. We are flowers in the same garden, bound together in an endless dance.” The play closes with an Indigenous song which may bring tears to your eyes, as it did to mine. I hope this play can be performed in a variety of locations (e.g. university campuses), so it can have a wide audience.
Isitwendam is at the Aki Studio, 585 Dundas Street East (just east of Parliament) through March 31. Contact Native Earth Performing Arts, https://www.nativeearth.ca/, 416.531.1402, for tickets and more information about this and future productions. Thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for helping support this production.