By now there must be few adult Canadians who are unaware of what residential schools did to so many First Nations children, to their families and to the generations that have followed. But awareness and visceral understanding are two different things. Children of God, the wrenching, but ultimately affirming, musical by writer/composer/lyricist/director Corey Payette, creates that gut-level comprehension, in the process leaving an indelible mark on your heart.
Payette, a young Oji-Cree theatre maker with a keen grasp of just how pliable a form the musical can be, achieves his goal by focusing his story on Tommy and Julia, a brother and older sister trapped in a grim residential school. Julia (a nuanced Cheyenne Scott) has been there for 10 years; her brother, played with deep conviction by Herbie Barnes, is a newer arrival. Their parents try to visit them but are not allowed in.
As we watch this unfold and see the punishments, the humiliations, the bullying meted out daily on these two children and their fellow students (played by Kevin Loring and others), we stop witnessing and begin experiencing their lives. Dressed in dull school uniforms, the slop they’re fed withheld for misbehaviour, the children are stripped of their language and their heritage. Even their memories of home begin to fade – indeed, the word “home” becomes a powerful refrain in Children of God, anchoring the reprised song The Closest Thing to Home and signalling all that this new, horrific life is not.
Yet these children, as desperate as they can become, are also resilient, even joyful at times as they create their own small worlds and diversions within the bigger one controlled by the sadistic disciplinarian Father Christopher (Michael Torontow) and the surprising Sister Bernadette (Trish Lindström). They rebel in small, sometimes very funny ways, acting out in class, smuggling bright flowers into the drear landscape of the school, finding ways to keep alive the identity that’s so endangered.
And, as happens with Julia, sometimes that identity simply can’t endure the attack.
These are all adult actors playing children, but you never for a minute doubt the veracity of the characters. That these children are, in a way, already the adults that they will become is another layer of the tragedy that stretches across time.
We see that when Payette, occasionally lifting us out of the school, propels us forward 20 years. We find Tommy living with his mother Rita (the magnetic Cathy Elliott) and trying to make his way in a world that has little time for him. But the damage has been done and he continually fails. The school has done its work.
Payette’s music, played by a small, on-stage ensemble under Allen Cole, carries and embroiders the emotional narrative of this storyline. A mix of Indigenous and European colours, and sometimes led by Elliott’s powerful hand drumming, it helps compensate for the occasional off-key singing of the actors and the distractingly tinny quality of the sound system on opening night, especially in the early going.
Stirring dance sequences, the rich work of Marshall McMahen and other designers, and the generous performances of all the actors conspire with Payette’s storytelling to make Children of God – which recently had its world premiere in Vancouver – essential Canadian theatre.
The extraordinary thing is that, in the midst of so much sadness and hurt, Payette finds a way to conclude his show with tremendous faith in our collective potential for moving forward. There is here both truth and, if not yet reconciliation, at least its possibility.
Children of God is an Urban Ink (Vancouver) production in collaboration with NAC English Theatre in association with Raven Theatre (Vancouver). It is presented in association with NAC’s Canada Scene Festival and runs until June 18 in the NAC Theatre. It was reviewed Friday. Tickets: nac-cna.ca