Review: Play on Sir John A. tries to understand how Canada’s relations with First Nations came to be

Martin Julien as Sir John A., and Darrell Dennis as Bobby Rabbit. Photo: Andrew Alexander

Are the sins of a father foisted upon his offspring? If it’s a founding father named Sir John A. Macdonald, and if you stretch the meaning of offspring to include subsequent generations of First Nations people and other Canadians, then the grumpy Old Testament got it right.

Disinterring that toxic – and overwhelmingly complicated – connection between what went before and what exists now drives Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion, Drew Hayden Taylor’s promising but uneven comedy making its world premiere at the National Arts Centre.

Commissioned by the NAC for its sesquicentennial celebrations, the show is part road movie, part history lesson. Taylor, who’s from Curve Lake First Nation and is propelled less by fury over injustice than a jaundiced determination to understand how two solitudes came to be and how they might eventually join forces, spins his tale around a trio of contemporary characters.

Bobby Rabbit (Darrell Dennis) is an intense, 30-something Indigenous guy with a fondness for didacticism and a bruised heart from a recently dissolved relationship (love, more often frustrated than fulfilled, bubbles away beneath the play’s surface). He’s decided to reclaim the medicine bundle that was taken from his late grandfather when he entered a residential school and which now sits in a British museum.

Bobby recruits his reluctant buddy Hugh (Herbie Barnes) for the adventure, which involves a journey from their homes on the Rez to a proposed act of rebellion at Macdonald’s grave in Kingston, Ont. Big-hearted and adorable to a fault (Barnes overplays his card), Hugh’s a dreamer who variously imagines himself as everything from a rock star – there are some very funny scenes of anthemic rock with Hugh belting his heart out for an imagined throng of fans – to a famous scientist and an astronaut. But really, he just wants to get along with the world.

Anya is the last member of this triad. Played with her usual efficiency and heart by Katie Ryerson, Anya’s a middle-class white woman searching, albeit in disconsolate fashion, for her own medicine bundle to relieve the ailments of her unfocused life. Stuck at a McDonald’s with neither transportation nor even a purse, she accepts Hugh’s offer of a lift home to Kingston.

Then there’s Sir John A. Shrewd, charming, self-important, and with a gloriously red nose, mottled cheeks and rich Scottish accent, he steps in and out of the narrative as Taylor whisks us from the present-day to 19th century Ottawa and back again.

Martin Julien is Sir John A. and his Macdonald declaims proudly on his vision of a growing country and those bothersome Native people: “Canada has little room for Indians as they exist now,” he asserts. The solution, of course, included the misbegotten residential school system hatched under his prime ministership and the starvation of First Nations people in the west to clear that part of the country for settlers.

The dire consequences of the actions of Macdonald and his peers on succeeding generations is driven home by having Sir John A. linger on stage for a minute of two when the action switches back to the present day. Under director Jim Millan, Macdonald watches, with cool bemusement, as Bobby, Hugh and Anya carry on their journey.

That journey includes the expression of familiar bromides like Anya’s comment on Sir John A.’s Indian policies: “He was a man of the times … it’s all about context.”

Bobby makes short work of such a thoughtless analysis. But while his response to Anya flows naturally from the conversation, there are too many other times when Taylor uses Bobby especially to bring us up to speed on the calamitous history of Indigenous people in a white-dominated Canada. The words then emerge as prosaically as a 1950s high school history book. They get the job done but at the cost of yanking Dennis partly out of character and distancing us from the adventure unrolling on stage.

The same thing happens when Macdonald recounts his journey from Scotland to Canada as a youngster. Julien handles it well, but there’s too much of the history lesson about it.

There are, too, near the top of the show snappy responses that bear the glibness of a sitcom, and the entire play overstays its welcome by a good quarter hour.

Maybe Taylor will polish all this for future productions.

While Taylor creates an enticing graveside scene at the end of the play, there’s no real reconciliation. And how could there be? We, like Bobby and Anya and even Hugh, are still trying to understand what Macdonald and his fellows wrought and which generations of Canadians allowed to continue unchecked. Taylor, however, does hold out a distant hope. As Hugh, who is wiser than he sometimes appears, says, “It’s never been about punishment. It’s about restoring harmony.”

Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion is a NAC English Theatre production. It was reviewed Thursday. In the Azrieli Studio until Oct. 14. Tickets:

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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.