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Karyn Recollet and J. Kelly Nestruck attended playwright and performer Yolanda Bonnell’s bug on two separate nights last week.

Gilad-Cohen/Theatre Passe Muraille

Karyn Recollet, a Cree University of Toronto professor who studies Indigenous performance and hip-hop culture, and J. Kelly Nestruck, a white theatre critic at The Globe and Mail, attended playwright and performer Yolanda Bonnell’s bug on two separate nights last week. They met up online on Friday to discuss the show, which is at Theatre Passe Muraille in Tkaronto/Toronto until Feb. 22.

Hi Karyn. Can I start off with an attempt at a description of the storytelling aspect of bug for readers?

Bonnell, a young in-demand performer from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay whose résumé already includes a season at the Stratford Festival, channels three characters to explore intergenerational trauma and addiction in the context of colonialism: a woman who had her daughter taken away from her; that woman’s daughter, raised in foster care, now dealing with parenthood and her own addictions; and then Manidoons (the Anishinaabe word for bug, insect or worm), a creeping, crawling manifestation of the trauma and addiction that sometimes pulls them down.

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There are other dimensions to the experience, however. How would you describe the performance to someone thinking of attending?

Read more: How should media respond when an artist limits reviews to critics who are Indigenous, black and people of colour?

Opinion: The intersection of political correctness and Indigenous theatre

Kelly, I saw the performance as a relational practice, where we were welcomed into the space in a way that reminded us to slow down and be intentional about our practice as witnesses to what we were about to participate in. Indigenous queer and two-spirit leadership within this piece became evident through processes of care and ongoing consent extended to all.

The performance itself became a series of gestures with repetition in the round – a circuitous/cypher space that encompassed painful stories and transformations held together through a generative Indigenous harm-reductive process.

Bug, staged under a canopy of webs and sticks designed by Mohawk scenographer Jay Havens, illuminated on-the-ground survival tactics, looped in partial narratives, partial knowledges, as though the stories themselves were strands on a web. Given that there can be no single, straight narrative that renders Indigenous life, this unruly map sometimes reminds us that, for some, full-on legibility can be dangerous.

Witnessing the tactile nature of a bug’s fugitive, furtive motion (a tap, a trace) in Bonnell’s physical performance as Manidoons, we were reminded that in the middle of colonial, racialized and gendered violence, we must become bugs to negotiate our terrain. While bugs create the space for human worlding, according to the Anishinaabe creation story read at the start of the piece, we have to be furtive, using on-the-ground survival tactics in order to carry the weight of generations of stolen children and difficult lives.

One of the technologies of care that struck me was the use of choreography and gestures as forms of Indigenous orality. Bonnell’s scooping gestures – which represented the Sixties Scoop – were choreographed with breath, and the holding of tension, thus embodying forced removals of Indigenous children from their homes, families and communities. For those of us in the audience that have been part of this removal from kin and territory, it was one of those moments when you yourself experience a suspension of breath. Breath, in these instances becomes a release, a sonic marker – a way for others to find you and a moment of possibility for other kinds of futures.

Being up so close to the performer (I was in the second circle of chairs around her), I found myself holding my breath as well, as I hoped bad things would not happen to her characters. As a white person who bought a ticket at the box office as you normally would for a play, I’m interested in how Bonnell is reframing – or, as she says, decolonizing – what I call theatre. While she’s presented this piece at performance festivals such as SummerWorks and Luminato before, now she’s presenting this version as part of the Theatre Passe Muraille season as “artistic ceremony.”

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Much of what I witnessed felt like theatre – with characters, a story and (quite striking) lighting and sound design. But Bonnell also prefaced the evening with a song that presenced water (in honour of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs) and had the Indigenous women in the audience stand up so we could acknowledge their presence. There was a support worker in the audience should anyone need her – and we were invited to come and go from the space as we pleased. We could even leave our phones on vibrate if we needed – which was actually welcome news, as our babysitter was late and my wife was trying to find alternative, last-minute child care.

During a question-and-answer period after, Bonnell explained other aspects of the ceremony: There were medicines present on stage and I learned that the beautiful giant rocks that were a part of Havens’s set design were there to represent the ancestors as stones in sweat lodges in Bonnell’s culture. Am I missing anything ceremonial?

I was invited to sit in the circle closest to the celestial waters and grandmother/father rocks – and felt like I was part of an intergenerational knowledge cypher. The atmospherics of the “ceremony” reminded me that it is our shared responsibility to keep each other safe and reciprocal, to hold space for Yolanda and honour the courage, energy and light that we were witnessing. An ethical space requires a collective gathering, and a freedom to be in moments of silence, of in-betweenness, together. Bonnell’s bug created an ethical space that illuminated our responsibility to make sure that the conduits – the artists, world builders, and Indigenous futurists – are safe and free to activate land/kin relationships in Tkaronto as a decolonial practice.

As a white man, I was allowed into this space as a regular spectator, not invited as a critic – as the manidoons collective made the decision to invite Indigenous reviewers and reviewers of colour. I always think artists must challenge institutions and norms – and that opinion of mine isn’t any different even when I’m the norm being challenged.

Can I ask you to end our conversation then by giving us your verdict? A thumbs-up or thumbs-down? A star rating? Or is the idea of delivering a verdict on art – i.e., get your tickets now! – the colonial construct that Bonnell’s trying to avoid here?

The stars that were offered within this performance were manifold – the stage design depicted a waterway that was mapped in stars. If I were to provide a rating then, it would be a full-on constellation.

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