Stage Door Review 2019

Isitwendam (An Understanding)

Mar 22, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Meegwun Fairbrother and Jack Grinhaus, directed by Jack Grinhaus

Bound to Create Theatre, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto

March 20-30, 2019

“Healing comes from listening”

Meegwun Fairbrother’s play Isitwendam (An Understanding), co-created with director Jack Grinhaus, is not just a play about the effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Native Canadians but about truth and reconciliation in general. The production of the tightly written play is imaginative in both design and direction and is anchored by a stunning performance by Fairbrother, who plays eight roles.

The action begins on June 11, 2008, when then Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologizes for the systematic abuse of Aboriginal children caused by the residential school system. The system was in place from 1876 to 1996 and was set up as a method of forced assimilation of Aboriginal children into Christian Canadian society which began with children being taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their native languages. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission discovered in investigating the system, not only did it cause psychological damage and disconnect the children from their families and culture but it led to physical abuse and death, with school-related deaths estimated at anywhere from 3200 to 6000.

The one-man-play follows the physical and spiritual journey of Brendan White, a young man, half White and half Ojibway and a member of the Conservative Party, who is looking for a job working for the government. He is given a position in the Department of Indigenous Affairs to meet Indigenous people who claim to be victims of the residential school system and are now seeking compensation. While Brendan sees this as an opportunity to validate their claims, his boss suggests that the vast majority of the claims are fraudulent. Brendan’s boss has hired him because he thinks that Native Canadians will find its harder to maintain lies when faced with one of their own on the government’s side.

Brendan’s first assignment to to fly to Kenora to discredit the claims of a native elder named Virginia. In the course of trying to find Virginia, Brendan meets with a host of locals who act as if they already know him. During one of his many phone calls to his mother he discovers that he was born in Kenora, not in Newmarket as he supposed and as his birth certificate states. Not only that, Brendan discovers that his father did not just leave his mother as she had always told him but that the circumstances were much more complex. Learning aboout Virginia’s past and about his own past, eventually causes Brendan to question the mission he has been sent on and to side with those he was meant to discredit.

Although the issues it highlights are of primary importance to Fairbrother, there is no doubt that Isitwendam allows him to showcase the range of his talents to a greater extent than any other part he has played. Indeed, Fairbrother plays eight roles which he keeps admirably distinct from each other. Of his various roles, the White Minister of Indigenous Affairs is more of a caricature than a character, but his portrait of the wise Virginia is full of gravitas and mystery and that of the painter Slim is imbued with remorse and resignation. 

His principal role as Brendan also covers a wide dramatic arc moving from the naive, go-getting, pro-government worker through the young man confused by the contradictory information he discovers in Kenora to a passionate advocate for Indigenous rights. The ending is almost shocking in its power as we see Brendan transform before our very eyes from the generally unassuming young man we have come to know into a man possessed as if by a higher power.

Hans Saefkow has designed a set that is both ingenious and symbolic. It is made up of two partially submerged polygons, a smaller one in front of a larger one. The front polygon is a decagon inside of which is a decagram with all the open spaces filled in and serves as a screen for Andy Moro’s projections. The back polygon is a dodecagon inside of which is a dodecagram also with the open spaces filled in. One of Slim’s paintings is in the triangualr shape of one of those spaces. 

A decagram in middle-eastern mystic traditions is viewed as the overlapping of two pentagrams – the upright pentagram symbolizing the triumph of matter over spirit, the upside-down pentagram symbolizing the triumph of spirit over matter. Together the decagram symbolizes the balance of spirt and matter and thus spiritual insight. This is exactly the situation in which we first meet Brendan. He does not have full spiritual insight. Indigenous American symbolism does not use a decagram but rather stars with four points or multiples of four. Twelve could represent the four cardinal directions and the eight intermediate directions. In general a dodecagon has the sense of a polygon whose shape is approaching a circle or the symbol of perfection. Brendan’s move from the space in front of the decagon to the space in front of the dodecagon in Kenora could be viewed as part of his journey of perfecting his knowledge of his culture and himself. At the conclusion of the play Brendan holds a circular hand-drum aloft in triumph.

The submerged decagram has hidden windows and and a hidden entrance just as the play contains information hidden from Brendan. Andy Moro’s projections onto the star along with Melissa Joakim’s creative use of lighting turn what starts out as a rather prosaic physical journey into a mysterious spiritual journey towards enlightenment. This is not a play of outrage and rebuke but one of understanding, which it what the title means in Ojibwe. As the programme explains, isitwendam “suggests that no matter what hurt has been inflicted, there is an understanding of that wrong and the chance to be forgiven is present”. 

The play does turn on the coincidence of Brendan being sent to a town that even he did not know was his birthplace. There is a scene where Brendan’s boss shows that he knows more than Brendan does about Brendan’s background. The trouble is if we are allowed to think the boss knows too much about it, the boss can hardly expect to have a positive result from Brendan’s mission. 

Nevertheless, Fairbrother, Grinhaus and the rest of the creative team have fashioned a theatre piece with a strong visual, emotional and intellectual impact. One can understand the use of recordings of Harper’s apology and of testimony at a hearing to lend the story authenticity. But, in fact, the story itself is so involving and forcefully told that the recordings are not really necessary. The production looks like it was made to tour and I certainly hope it does. It will be an eye-opener for those who have not fully considered the effect of the residential school system on Indigenous Canadians and it will also serve as an example of how Indigenous Canadian theatre has combined storytelling and new technology to stunning effect. See Isitwendam while you can. But I hope the show will tour since it deserves to be seen by the broadest possible audience. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Meegwun Fairbrother as Brendan White. © 2019 Joe Bucci.

For tickets, visit www.nativeearth.ca.