Mòshkamo: Playwright’s search led her to Finding Wolastoq Voice

A scene from Finding Wolostoq Voice featuring Aria Evans. The production is part of the Mòshkamo festival at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Andre Reinders

If you’ve been tracking the buzz around the inaugural season of NAC Indigenous Theatre, you’ll know that Finding Wolastoq Voice, by New Brunswick’s Natalie Sappier, opens Sept. 21. What you may not realize is that this is the first play Sappier has ever written.

The solo show — a dance-theatre hybrid which debuted in 2018 at Theatre New Brunswick before touring to Toronto and beyond — is the personal coming-of-age story of a young Wolastoqiyik woman awakened by the voices of her ancestors. It features dancer/choreographer Aria Evans.

“I had no intentions of writing a play that is still going on right now. I did it just to learn,” says Sappier, a Wolastoqiyik artist from Tobique First Nation. “To have it be the first Wolastoqiyik play to tour this province, and then going outside the province and then going to the National Arts Centre, it’s like, wow! It gives me reassurance to keep doing what I’m doing.”

A visual artist with a lifelong love of music, Sappier uses chanting, meditation and memory to go to what she calls a “very ceremonial place” to create. Finding Wolastoq Voice (Wolastoq is the traditional name of the St. John River) was inspired by the teachings of the land and the water in that ceremonial place along with her own personal journey and teachers she’s learned from along the way.

But it was more than that.

“I was not seeing enough of our stories as Wolastoqiyik, as Wabanaki–Mikmaq people,” says Sappier. “We needed to hear our languages, we needed to hear our stories… In my paintings, I felt it just wasn’t loud enough. I wanted to take up those stories within the songs and the dancing and the language. And someone said, ‘Well, that’s theatre.’”

So, Sappier took her grab-bag of ideas to dramaturg and director Thomas Morgan Jones, then artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick and now in the same role at Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg. He directs Finding Wolastoq Voice.

“What she brought was a burning need to speak and an urgent story to tell,” says Jones.

Supported by a residency grant from the Canada Council, she learned the craft of theatre making by working on productions along with writing her own show. But she brought her own, distinctive take to theatre, Jones says.

For instance, she told him one day that she wanted to do some paintings to help define the story, and Jones figured she meant a few sketches. Instead, she showed up with completely realized, gallery-ready paintings that eventually became prompts for the show’s direction, choreography and design. “’Well, you’re kind of reinventing how to write a play,’” Jones recalls saying to her. “To someone not coming from theatre, that seems so logical, to reinvent it for herself.”

The theatre-dance hybrid that Sappier created, while not unique to her, also evolved during this time. She says she incorporated dance because whenever she went to her ceremonial place, she saw a dancer expressing feelings that Sappier couldn’t render in words or painting or music alone.

What Sappier wound up writing, says Jones, was “deeply personal and highly vulnerable. It’s about someone finding her own voice but also about communities finding their voice and putting it out in the world.”

It’s also a story that its creator says both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people connect with because it’s about family, healing and forgiveness.

This is a vibrant time for New Brunswick Indigenous artists and especially the Wolastoqiyik people, according to Sappier. She credits in particular the outspoken, classically-trained tenor and composer Jeremy Dutcher — whose first album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa has won both the Polaris Music Prize and the JUNO Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year — for bringing the voice of their people to the world.

Giving a stage to that voice is crucial, believes Sappier. “I really hope to inspire our people to see the sacredness that they have inside them, the dances that they have within them that we are waiting to see and learn from.

“We are sharing our stories through our dance, our music, our art forms. It’s definitely a healing for many of us.”

Finding Wolastoq Voice is in the Azrieli Studio, Sept. 21-23. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca

The show is part of the Mòshkamo Indigenous Arts Festival, an all-Indigenous celebration throughout the NAC’s performance and public spaces on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabeg territory. It runs until Sept. 29.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.