Isitwendam Meegwun Fairbrother in Isitwendam, now at the Daniels Spectrum. (Joe Bucci photo) Written and performed by Meegwun Fairbrother. Co-created and directed by Jack Grinhaus. Until March 31 at Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas St. E. NativeEarth.ca or 416-531-1402.
In the years, decades, and generations to come that will attempt to reconcile Canada’s Indigenous people with the country that committed the atrocities of residential schools — the last one of which, it’s always harrowing to be reminded, closed in only 1996 — we cannot hear too many stories that bring this trauma to light. As difficult as it is to tell and receive these stories, the communal act of listening is a crucial step toward healing, as actor and writer Meegwun Fairbrother, of Ojibwe and Scottish ancestry, concludes in his solo performance, Isitwendam , directed and co-created by Jack Grinhaus, on now in Toronto with Bound to Create Productions presented by Native Earth Performing Arts.
Though the reality of residential schools should span across as many storytelling forms possible, that’s why theatre — which brings people across cultures and backgrounds, including storyteller and audience, together in the same space — is such a potent one.
For many reasons, Isitwendam is an important play to witness, bringing us back over 10 years to Stephen Harper’s official apology to the victims of residential schools and illuminating how much farther there is to go in a widespread reckoning with the shameful acts of the Canadian government. Isitwendam feels like an immediate reaction to Harper’s apology — and it is, as Fairbrother explains in his program note.
“Isitwendam” is apparently the closest thing in the Ojibwe lexicon to “sorry,” the word that has come to define the Canadian personality, but instead it means “an understanding” — and that difference reveals one of Fairbrother’s main ideas, that the colonial act of apology can be quick and passive, but what is required by Indigenous people takes far more work, communication, and empathy.
The time it has taken for this story to reach a Toronto stage has a complex effect on its reception now — it feels both rooted in another time in Canadian history, and yet sadly still incredibly immediate. Part of what gives this play a period-piece appearance is Fairbrother’s framing device: he plays a hopeful intern named Brendan White, looking to make gains in the Conservative Party, who lucks into a gig with the ministry of Indian Affairs investigating residential-school reparations claims.
While looking into the claim of an elder named Virginia in Kenora, Ont., Brendan interviews locals who educate him on the ongoing impact of the area’s residential schools. The people in Kenora feel familiar to Brendan, who recently discovered his Ojibwe heritage on his father’s side, and as he looks into Virginia’s story, comes closer to understanding his own.
In a way, connecting this story so closely to the Conservatives has a distancing effect, as does Fairbrother’s caricature performance of the Conservative minister of Indian Affairs — a fraternity bro that loves golf and power, silhouetted in Melissa Joakim’s effective lighting design. A more realistic demonstration of the systemic forces of suppression might help the play’s villain feel more current, true, and threatening.
As Fairbrother cycles through the various characters, several moments feel true and moving, such as his turn as Virginia, who tells her story with strength and devastation and hope. But the overall structure leads to some awkward expository scenes; as the only performer, Fairbrother often relies on one-sided phone calls and monologues to fill in the details, which lacks the tension that is necessary for Brendan’s ultimate discovery to hit as hard as it should.
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