Mòshkamo: Where the Blood Mixes examines damage done by residential schools

Marco Collins and Soleil Launière are seen here in a scene from Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring.

Few playwrights would compare their work to a humble vegetable. In the case of Where the Blood Mixes, Kevin Loring does exactly that. 

The Governor General’s Award-winning play —which Loring started writing two decades ago and is being revived as part of NAC Indigenous Theatre’s much-anticipated inaugural season — opens with a stereotype: a couple of Indigenous guys, Mooch and Floyd, are knocking back beers in a bar.

The story then deepens into an examination of the residential school system’s legacy, which Loring calls “an invisible demon that was devouring my community when I was writing (the play).” That’s when the vegetable analogy kicks in.

“The whole dramaturgy of the piece is to unwrap that onion layer by layer, strip away the stereotypes and get to the heart of why these guys are the way they are,” says Loring. “The more I unravelled that onion, peel by peel by peel, I got down to that central core, that invisible demon that, at the time, no was talking about and no one wanted to talk about.”

Loring, who is now the artistic director of NAC Indigenous Theatre and a member of the British Columbia’s Nlaka’pamux First Nation, wrote the first version of the play as a theatre student in the late 1990s.

A solo piece called The Ballad of Floyd, it was a character study of a lonely guy in a bar. Over the next few years, Loring tinkered with and workshopped his script until it was seen by First Nations actor Gary Farmer. “He challenged me to go deeper: ‘So we have we have a drunken Indian in a bar. Who cares? Now what?’” 

Loring took the challenge seriously, rewriting the play until it assumed its current form and characters, including frequent humour and the pivotal person of Christine, Floyd’s daughter. Shipped off to foster parents when just a baby, she returns to Floyd and her home, sparking the self-examination and eventual healing that is at the heart of the play.

In rewriting the script, Loring also changed its name to Where the Blood Mixes, a tribute to his hometown of Lytton, B.C. 

Kumsheen, the Nlaka’pamux name of Lytton, means “the place inside the heart where the blood mixes,” he says. “It relates to the origin stories about that location, the origins of my people. It speaks about it being the heart of the nation. It speaks about the returning salmon and the importance of that, that the river and the salmon in the river are the heart of the people.”

Lytton, where the Fraser and Thompson rivers meet, also plays into the way he set up the story. “The Fraser is sort of muddy and big and warm like Mooch. The Thompson is this cold, blue, deep, rocky river — very clear but very cold — like Floyd. There’s a blueness about him. Mooch and Floyd are opposite sides of the same coin.”

The completed show premiered in 2008 at Toronto’s Luminato festival, moved on to Magnetic North, and played the NAC in 2010. In all, it’s had six or seven productions, according to its creator.

Distressingly, two decades after he began working on it, the play sometimes still performs a basic awareness role, according to Loring. “Since the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), since the missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry has concluded, I think as a society we have a bit more context — even though all the time I encounter people who are like, ‘I’ve never heard of this. Residential schools? What are they?’ That floors me. So I think it’s still a relevant piece in terms of understanding.” 

Loring also wonders about reconciliation itself. “Now, everybody is trying to reconcile. Usually, they’re just trying to reconcile some sort of guilt but not really get to some kind of relationship with Indigenous people.” 

The play may help build those relationships. Loring says audiences have told him and others that they see themselves in the characters. “I’ve had totally non-Indigenous people say, ‘That’s my family.’ Or say, ‘I’m Floyd. I haven’t talked to my daughter in 25 years. I’m going to call her tomorrow.’”  

Unlike previous productions, the new one, directed by Charles Bender, has a bare-bones simplicity to its design, says the playwright. He compares it to a healing circle and says it could be performed in a community centre and still be powerful. 

It’s also being performed in both English and French, the latter a co-presentation by the annual Zones Théâtrales festival. Looking ahead, Loring says he’d like to do more productions in both official languages. 

Whether performed in English or French, Indigenous theatre has its own, distinctive rhythms, says Loring. “In the western model, there’s the protagonist/antagonist dynamic. But I’m seeing more and more, with Indigenous works, they’re wrestling with something that’s actually invisible.

“If you look at Where the Blood Mixes, who’s the protagonist? They’re all on this journey together and you couldn’t really point out one opposing force other than the history, the legacy, the thing those characters are wrestling with.

“If there’s a fundamental Indigenous dramaturgy, it’s something that unfolds almost like ripples in a pond.”

Where the Blood Mixes is in the Azrieli Studio, Sept. 13-18 (French, Sept. 13&14; English, Sept. 16-18). All shows will end with a sharing circle with the public.

For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.

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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.