A musical might not be your instinctive choice for bringing to the stage the residential school experience of First Nations people.
But it made perfect sense to Corey Payette, the playwright, composer, lyricist and director of Children of God, which opens at the National Arts Centre this week.
The musical centres on an Oji-Cree family whose children are taken away to a residential school in northern Ontario. Rita, the mother, is not permitted to enter the school, and her children, Tom and Julia, never know of her attempts to see them.
“Musicals work best when they’re used to express emotions that are beyond words,” says Payette, himself an Oji-Cree man from northern Ontario. “It was very natural for us to use music to deepen the characters’ exploration of what they were dealing with. The students were punished for speaking their language, for showing their emotion or anything that is human. So music allowed them to access those things that are unspeakable.”
He adds that, as an Indigenous person, he was taught that a story can’t be told without having both a song and a dance. That trio of elements is also the bedrock of any musical.
The music that Payette created is an amalgam of Aboriginal and western forms. There’s drumming but also piano, viola, cello and guitar. He says that audience members (the show premiered in Vancouver two weeks ago and will tour Canada next year) have noticed that the reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that is the show’s goal is also embedded in its very form.
Payette, who’s 30 and attended Canterbury High School for a couple of years, began working on Children of God seven years ago. He says he initially approached it from a place of anger at the system that had nurtured the residential school system.
To his surprise, when he spoke to survivors of the system, he found not anger but a focus on healing, on looking to the future and celebrating a culture that not only survived but is being reborn after the worst that others could throw at it.
“Those survivors and their families changed my outlook. It’s a world view they have gifted to me, and it’s my responsibility to continue that good work.”
When it came time to begin rehearsing the show, Payette – who’s artistic director of Vancouver’s Urban Ink productions – settled on Kamloops Indian Residential School for rehearsal space. A red-brick building constructed in the 1920s, it’s a formidable-looking place in photos and videos, with the wide staircases and squared-off halls that don’t exactly inspire free expression.
The rehearsals took place in the chapel, which Payette visited in advance to set up the space. “It was an emotional day. I stood in the room and cried. There are no words in the English language to describe what it’s like to stand in a room that holds this kind of history and to recognize that the work we’re doing opens that up again for people to witness. It’s a mixture of scary but necessary.”
The former residential school is now a community hub used by a day care and others, the sound of children and adults going about their daily business filling the hallways.
Payette invited some of those people to watch the rehearsal process. Like cast members, some of them had family who had attended the school. “It was hard for them to watch and hard for us because it’s still so close.”
It was also hard for a man who attended the musical when it opened. The former student at the school cried through the performance. When Payette, sitting behind him, leaned over at intermission to say there were support workers present who could help him, the man answered, “’I’m not leaving my seat. I never thought anyone would gather to hear my story, to care enough to hear my story. I’m going to sit here and witness it.’”
Payette believes that we simply don’t know about the strength of such people – or their willingness to forgive. “If people could understand that strength, acknowledge it, I think it would change the way we see Indigenous people in this country.
Ultimately, he says, it’s up to each audience member to decide what to do with that understanding and how to move forward to a better place.
A lot weighs on that, according to Payette.
“Our generation will be measured on our effort toward reconciliation.”
Children of God is in the National Arts Centre Theatre June 7-18 (previews June 7 & 8; opening night, June 9). It is also part of Canada Scene. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca