Stage Door Review

1939

Friday, September 16, 2022

✭✭✭✭✩

by Jani Lauzon & Kaitlyn Riordan, directed by Jani Lauzon

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford

September 11-October 29, 2022

Countess: “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none” (All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 1, Scene 1)

Much happened in 1939. The Spanish Civil War ended in Franco’s victory. Germany invaded Poland beginning World War II. The MS St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees, was refused entry to the US and was tuned back to Europe where most of its 907 passengers died in concentration camps. As far as Canadian history is concerned two important events took place. On September 10 Canada declared war on Germany – the first time Canada ever independently declared war. And on May 17 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (mother of the future Queen Elizabeth II) began the first ever tour of Canada by a reigning British monarch. It is this last event that the title of 1939 refers to, a play about Canadian residential schools by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan having its world premiere at the Stratford Festival.

The action is set at a fictional Anglican residential school somewhere in northern Ontario. English teacher Sian Ap Dafydd (Sarah Dodd) is excited because she has just learned that the royals will be visiting the school and will take in a performance of the school play, Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Ap Daffyd wants the students to work especially hard on reproducing British pronunciation in order to impress the regal visitors.

The play alternates between scenes depicting the progress of the rehearsals for All’s Well and scenes of everyday life unrelated to the play. Dedication to the Shakespeare’s play increases when a Mrs. Macbeth (Jacklyn Francis), a journalist from the nearest city decides to write a feature on the royal visit to the school and the school play. That enthusiasm withers when Ap Daffyd and the students read what Macbeth has written. She has misunderstood, either willingly or accidentally, that the students will be presenting an “Indian” version of All’s Well. This is upsetting to the teachers because the whole point of the residential school is to obliterate the students’ native heritage so that they will better assimilate into White Canadian society. This is upsetting to the students because those who have been most successful at school no longer identify with their native culture and certainly do not identify with the stereotypical “Indianness” that the local church ladies’ sets and costumes will force upon them.

The play focusses on only five students and two faculty members. The two faculty members are Miss Ap Daffyd and Father Williams (Mike Shara), who gives religious instruction, coaches hockey and knows absolutely nothing about secular literature in general and Shakespeare in particular.

The five students represent a range of First Nations. Joseph Summers (Richard Comeau) and his sister, Beth (Tara Sky), are Ojibwe have been at the school for seven years. Its policy of separating siblings has kept them apart until now when some fluke has brought them together. The two have to hide their relationship in order to stay together just as they have to make sure no one overhears them speaking anishinaabemowin, their native language, a practice which is strictly forbidden.

Susan Blackbird (Kathleen MacLean) is an orphan who has been at the school since she was four. Contrary to school’s policy, she consciously tries to reconnect with her Cree heritage. Newcomer Evelyne Rice (Wahsonti:io Kirby) tries to avoid punishment by repressing her Kanien’kéha culture and language. Jean Delorme (John Wamsley) is a Métis student and is thus a rarity at the school. He struggles with not being considered native enough by the students and not European enough by the faculty.

As the Production Synopsis states, “Born of both family legacy and the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1939 has been guided by Indigenous Elders, Survivors and ceremony throughout its development process”. The Elder Script Consultants are named in the programme – Pauline Shirt, Shirley Horn, Edna Manitowabi and Elizabeth Stevens – as is the Spiritual and Traditional Medicine Advisor, Pauline Shirt.

With such guidance from Elders and Survivors it may surprise some people that 1939 is largely conceived as a comedy. The character of Father Williams is comic throughout. He seems to care more about hockey than he does about religion, and his ignorance of Shakespeare is nearly eclipsed by his ignorance of the Scriptures.

Miss Ap Dafydd is also portrayed as a comic figure even though she, like Father Williams, could easily be depicted by other playwrights as embodiments of colonialism and oppression. Ap Dafydd’s worship of the actor Ellen Terry as the ultimate guide to performing Shakespeare is seen as a foolish quirk. Her attempts to have the students pronounce Shakespeare as Terry does on a recording is hilariously misguided. She rejects the students’ use of their own native backgrounds to inform their performances, but that plan is turned upside down when Mrs. Macbeth’s article appears.

What makes 1939 so surprising, given the uncompromising stand of so many activists, is that Lauzon and Riordan sympathize with Ap Dafydd and Williams as ordinary people who are trapped within several types of hierarchy themselves. Both are children of immigrants – Ap Dafydd’s from Wales, Williams’s from Yorkshire. They have grown up in Canada which is now in the midst of celebrating its ties to the Mother Country their parents left. They work at a school inculcating ideas of Britishness even though conditions in Britain led their parents to emigrate.

Lauzon and Riordan give Ap Dafydd a startling, impassioned speech about the necessity of assimilating. Wales was an independent country with its own language and culture until it was conquered by England in 1283. Ap Dafydd relates that when she grew up it was forbidden to speak Welsh. Her father’s continuing to use it led to all work being closed to him which led him to poverty and drink. Ap Dafydd’s personal experience of growing up in a de facto colony of England makes her adamant that the only way ahead for minorities is assimilation. We learn that even Father Williams’s mother spoke a non-standard English far removed from the rounded tones of Ellen Terry.

Lauzon and Riordan also emphasize that Ap Dafydd and Williams are hardly free agents. Both characters speak several times about the precarity of their jobs if the play does not go well. Church authorities will never assign Williams a parish of his own and Ap Dafydd will be forbidden to teach Shakespeare or direct. Williams’s patronizing remarks to Ap Dafydd and the other women show that women in general already have a lower status.

By providing so much background for Ap Dafydd and Williams, Lauzon and Riordan do not excuse Ap Dafydd and Williams’s behaviour. Rather Lauzon and Riordan make clear that Ap Dafydd and Williams are imposing on their students systems of oppression from which they themselves have been and still are subject. Lauzon and Riordan highlight the similarities rather than the differences between the teachers and their students, which makes Ap Dafydd and Williams as agents of Britishness even more ironic.

In the same way, Lauzon and Riordan do not present Shakespeare as an outmoded artifact from the past that has to be “fixed” to be effective in the present. Instead, Lauzon and Riordan repeatedly demonstrate that Shakespeare’s words help give voice to ideas the students find useful. Students repeat two lines in particular from the play – the First Lord’s statement in Act 4, “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together” and especially Helena’s statement in Act 1, “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie Which we ascribe to heaven”. The first quotation helps the students characterize the situation they find themselves in in school. The second quotation helps them find the resolve to improve that situation.

Far from presenting Shakespeare’s play as a problem, Lauzon and Riordan show that the students each find ways to see themselves reflected in the play’s characters. Evelyne, who is cast as Helena, sees that Shakespeare’s character, like her, seems to belong nowhere but has inherited the gift of healing powers. Evelyne knows that she has retained the gift of indigenous medicine from her grandfather, and so plays Helena as if she were.

Jean, who is cast as Parolles, sees that the character is viewed as half a soldier and half a clown. As a Métis he identifies very well with Parolles and how Parolles is treated and therefore plays the character as if he were Métis.

Another advantage of playing a classic text, even if it is from a foreign culture, is that the students are allowed to speak of subjects as characters that they would never be allowed to speak of as themselves. Lauzon and Riordan use Helena and Parolles’ banter about “virginity” in Act 1, Scene 1, on purpose to show how the classic text liberates the students from real world constraints on their speech.

Even the conclusion of the play falls under the heading of comedy. Of the five students, four enthusiastically go on to gainful employment with only Beth left behind. Such an ending is certainly not what I expected from a play about residential schools, but given the authorities behind the play’s creation, it’s quite clear that Lauzon and Riordan have written 1939 in the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation. On opening night the notion of reconciliation was emphasized when a trio of Oneida Women Singer sang a traditional song celebrating friendship.

All of this does not mean that the horrors of residential schools are forgotten. They are merely not foregrounded. Susan has been severely wounded by a blow from a teacher. We never see the teacher but we do see the wound and how Evelyne is ready to heal it with traditional medicine. We hear that the students are allowed no communication with their families. This is illustrated when a letter happens to fall from Father Williams’s pocket. It is addressed to Jean and expresses his mother’s longing to see him. Williams clearly was never going to deliver it.

Joanna Yu’s set places a large blackboard centre stage and three smaller blackboards along the stairs up to the balcony on either side of the stage. Between the many short scenes, students write something – the word “home” or the start of a letter – on one of the blackboards. Ap Dafydd, Williams or even Macbeth will then follow the student, take an eraser and wipe out whatever was written. In this brilliantly simple way Lauzon, as director, keeps always in our minds that the purpose of the residential schools is to erase the students former identities.

Lauzon has formed the actors into a fine ensemble. Though Mike Shara has played a diverse range of parts in the past, he is particularly expert at playing fairly clueless men. So he does here with Father Williams, who is such a buffoon we wonder how he wields any authority. To make things worse, Lauzon and Riordan have decided that Williams expresses his fear of public speaking through flatulence. They could have chosen other symptoms such as dry mouth, stuttering or complete freezing. Their choice suggests the authors are needlessly trying to make Williams funnier than he already is.

Sarah Dodd also has displayed a wide range in her acting, but she does happen to play the part of prissy spinsters, such as Miss Prism in Wilde’s Earnest, with a special ease. So we find her here. What Dodd adds to Miss Ap Dafydd, a generally likeable and compassionate character, is the unconscious bias of someone who feels innately superior to those she teaches and has no notion of the subtle harm that her constantly patronizing tone may have. She calls the students’ native names “unpronounceable”, as if her own were not a challenge to English speakers. We don’t expect Williams to have any self-knowledge, but as the action progresses we do find it disheartening how Williams and especially Ap Dafydd do not change at all, while the five students undergo major changes in their thinking about themselves and their role in society.

The actors playing the five students give the firm impression of a tight-knit group. Even when they say nothing, the five convey through body language and facial gestures the general humour, exasperation or disgust with which the students view Williams and Ap Dafydd. Richard Comeau has Joseph show a deep care for his sister Beth and an innate bravery that we fear will lead him into trouble. Fortunately, it does not. As Beth, Tara Sky plays the saddest and least hopeful of the group. We can see that she is disappointed at not being chosen to play Helena, but we are surprised that she doesn’t see the beauty in the role of the wise Countess of Roussillon. Sky has Beth enter into a sulk that seems to last the whole of the play. We know that Beth wants to be a teacher. We also know that to be a teacher she will have to renounce her native status. Only at the end do we realize that this sulk may really be a sign of a profound depression that Beth may never overcome.

Wahsonti:io Kirby gives Evelyne the cheery, devil-may-care attitude of someone who knows she is smart and is willing to see how far she can push things to suit her way of thinking. Playing Helena brings her back to her heritage and, once she realizes that, Susan is never going to give that up. Kathleen MacLean plays Susan as an outsider who rather enjoys the fact that Diana in All’s Well would agree to something so amoral as the bed trick. Kirby lends Susan a sense of shrewdness, as if constantly judging what she needs to do and say to fit in and yet not compromise her values.

John Wamsley is a real pleasure as Jean. He is the liveliest of the five and the most carefree. It’s true that we see that someone like Joseph is prejudiced against him for not be a “real” native person. This may upset Jean for a moment, but he is able to look at his situation from both sides. The fact that he fits in nowhere also means he is not bound by anything. The one time we see another side to Jean is when he finds the letter from his mother. Wamsley’s reading of that letter may be the most moving moment in the play.

Obviously, a good knowledge of All’s Well will help in understanding the many scenes excerpted from that play in 1939. Nevertheless, Lauzon and Riordan have done such an excellent job in providing the context for these scenes that a knowledge of All’s Well is not absolutely necessary. In fact, I understood Shakespeare’s play much more clearly from how it was explained and discussed in 1939 than I did in Stratford’s current production of it.

Lauzon and Riordan’s 1939 turns out to be a nuanced creation where the text and the production diliberately emphasize opposite aspects of the same situation. The text may make us laugh at the follies of Williams and Ap Dafydd and the cheer on the cleverness of the students and their eventual success, but the production leaves us in no doubt that students who depart the school are Survivors of a process of cultural erasure that some, like Beth, will never conquer.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Richard Comeau as Joseph (centre) with Tara Sky as Beth, John Wamsley as Jean, Kathleen MacLean as Susan and Wahsonti:io Kirby as Evelyne (in background); Wahsonti:io Kirby as Evelyne (centre) with members of the cast; Richard Comeau as Joseph, Tara Sky as Beth and Wahsonti:io Kirby as Evelyne. © 2022 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.