Disconnect from those who preceded us, from the land and water around us, from anything much bigger than just the fraught present, and life becomes a long, troubled sleep without a voice. Reconnect with those things, and our voice — which is who we are at our core — returns.
In its simplest terms, that’s what’s the young woman discovers in Finding Wolastoq Voice, the hypnotic theatre-dance hybrid by Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier) that is part of the inaugural season of NAC Indigenous Theatre.
Dancer/choreographer Aria Evans portrays that young woman, telling her story as recorded voiceovers, drums and chanting move the narrative forward and deepen it.
A Wolastoqiyik artist from Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Sappier — her English name is the one most commonly used — has created a piece rich in memory, despair and hope.
Evans, who is of Mi’kmaq, African and Settler heritage, embodies that journey in striking, economical fashion.
She’s a child fishing for salmon in the Wolastoq, the traditional name of the St. John River, and then she is the salmon itself, flashing in glory through the water. She is the flowing river, the jagged roots of trees, a lumbering bear at once dangerous and carrying an important message.
She’s the girl at 10, entering a decade of darkness brought on by abuse, her body, as though unjointed, convulsing in misery and reaching out in an attempt to grasp what’s been lost. “I’d forgotten how to sing. I’d forgotten how to dance,” says the voiceover.
And she is the young woman emerging from the darkness, hearing again the voices of her ancestors and of herself in the water and forest. If injury and anger trapped her for so many years, forgiveness now sets her free.
In the end, she and Wolastoq rediscover their shared voice, the disembodied voiceovers and the dancer merging in a kind of homecoming. “I am awake now. I remember who I am. I am Wolastoq,” says the voiceover.
Evans plays out this story in a round performance space by set and lighting designer Andy Moro. She dances on a warmly hued wooden platform divided into four sections, revives herself with water from lit channels radiating off the platform, uncovers curved wood stakes in sandy boxes that encircle the platform. Those stakes become the prison of bedroom walls and the trees of a liberating forest as the young woman moves from sleep to wakefulness, from mute to voiced.
Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones and with sound design by Michael Doherty, Sappier’s piece — the first play she’s ever written — is taut, layered and moving.
Like much of what we’ve seen in these opening weeks of NAC Indigenous Theatre, including a powerfully unadorned remounting of Kevin Loring’s play Where the Blood Mixes, Finding Wolastoq Voice is also a story of extraordinary resilience, of re-found voices emerging from a trajectory of human wreckage. It’s a trajectory and a resurgent strength of which most of us, the white settlers of Canada whose ancestors instigated the destruction and who so often continue to perpetuate it, cannot conceive.
That such resilience exists is a kind of miracle. That those who have had to find it have welcomed us so graciously to share in their stories is an extraordinary act of generosity.
Finding Wolastoq Voice is a Theatre New Brunswick production in association with Prairie Theatre Exchange. It was reviewed Saturday. In the Azrieli Studio until Sept. 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.