Saskatoon-based theatre artist Joel Bernbaum wanted to make a work about Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in his province; call it a truthful play about reconciliation.
A journalism school graduate and playwright, Bernbaum set out to create a piece of verbatim theatre, where the script is created entirely from actual things people have said – kind of like a documentary for the stage. Bernbaum did the first 50 interviews in 2015, funded by the Saskatchewan Arts Board Independent Artists program, and then he was commissioned by Persephone Theatre to continue the project. But where Bernbaum had hoped for truthful disclosures and real emotion – anger, grief, whatever – the responses he received were instead mostly banal.
Things like: “Oh yes, there are some challenges, but we’re getting along,” recalls his creative collaborator on this project, Yvette Nolan.
“Everyone was willing to talk and everyone was polite,” Bernbaum says.
“And then Colten Boushie drove onto that farm.”
On Aug. 9, 2016, Boushie, a young Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation, was shot and killed on a Saskatchewan farm belonging to Gerald Stanley. Boushie, 22, was shot at close range in the back of the head. Stanley, who is white, testified that it had been a freak accident, that the gun went off accidentally after he had fired two warning shots.
Stanley was charged with second-degree murder. On Feb. 9, 2018, Stanley was found not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter – by an all-white jury. The courtroom – the country – erupted. The deeply upsetting case polarized and galvanized Canadians.
Those polite interviews? “They got really real,” says the show’s other co-creator, Lancelot Knight.
“When that happened, all of a sudden people needed to talk. And they started speaking with a new kind of openhearted raw honesty, and I would just sit there and listen and record these interviews,” Bernbaum adds. “We had a play before. And now we really had a play.”
The case became the focus of Bernbaum’s verbatim play, whose co-creators have Indigenous backgrounds. Nolan is Algonquin and Irish-Canadian, and Knight is Cree. Their Reasonable Doubt, a documentary play with live music, has its world premiere at Persephone Theatre on Jan. 31 (after two nights of previews). The script was created entirely from transcripts of the trial, interwoven with more than 60 unique voices from nearly 300 interviews.
“I was really excited about it,” says Boushie’s mother Debbie Baptiste, whose family offered permission and support to Bernbaum and the team. She believes her son did not receive justice from the legal system.
“They already had him labelled, they had him ready to sweep him underneath the carpet and put us away on a shelf somewhere where we were just another name to be forgotten along the many list of people,” Baptiste says. “We were just trying to get justice and we didn’t get it. So our lives were empty. And then Joel presented this play that he wanted to open up people’s minds and put in what people really thought about the situation.”
Bernbaum spent time in court during Stanley’s trial and also spoke to people all over Saskatchewan, making a point of including people from different backgrounds who might have different perspectives. “I was not trying to take a side. I was trying to get a kaleidoscope view,” he says.
The verdict left co-creator Nolan, also the show’s director and dramaturg, “wrecked” and “numb.”
Knight, who wrote raps and songs for the play, also using the interviews, had trouble even reading the transcripts.
“It was a really challenging experience and it was really hard to work with the material, too. Because these are things I’ve always known the way people feel, being myself – like I’m 6-foot-7, Native American, I’m a big guy, you get treated differently, so you know these things,” says Knight, who in addition to being co-creator, composer and sound designer, also appears in the show. But still. “It’s something that it’s hard to see on paper. It’s hard to believe that someone actually told someone this kind of stuff in person thinking it was okay.”
Bernbaum did all of the interviews on his own. The group felt that, as a white guy, he would get more truthful answers from certain contingents. Things were so heated, Knight figures, that people felt they had a pass to say what they really believed – politically correct or not.
“Joel asked me to go on the interviews, but I decided not to,” Knight says. “Me being Native American, we wouldn’t have got those answers from certain people if I was sitting in the room next to Joel.”
Bernbaum had earlier made a documentary play about homelessness, Home is a Beautiful Word, which premiered at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria in 2014.
“I kept thinking I don’t want this to just be a flash in the pan; I want to keep doing this work,” he says. “I think I’ve found a way that really weaves theatre and journalism together.”
This kind of work, Nolan says, is particularly important right now.
“Ever since that POTUS was elected to the south of us, it feels to me like art has become more critical, but especially for me, theatre. We don’t actually have the luxury anymore of making theatre just for kicks or for entertainment or to make people feel good,” she says. “We have to make more relevant, more politically charged art. Because it’s one of the few ways to have a discussion with the mainstream, with the larger community.”
The play was workshopped in Saskatoon in December, 2018. The final of the three readings was attended by members of Boushie’s family, including his mother.
“I was kind of afraid when I first sat there. I was afraid to hear some of those opinions, to hear what they had to say,” Baptiste says.
It was also, Bernbaum says, “incredibly electric” for the performers to be in such close proximity to the family. But they were also nervous, having to deliver some lines that would be difficult for the family to hear.
“The actors tried to crawl into their music stands. And I was like, okay guys, I know you’re going to not want to raise your faces because the family’s here but you have to,” Nolan recalls. "And then they sat in the front row, right in front of the actors. The actors and the family were three feet apart. And it was intense. But it is also truth, right? All the words that are said are words that human beings have said. And I think that part of the challenge in this country is Indigenous people have felt unheard and unseen. So even though it was hard, it was a statement: We see you, you see us, we heard you.”
Baptiste says she had expected to hear some negative things, and as difficult as that was, she feels good about what she saw.
“The things that actually happened in that courtroom, he put it on the stage to let people know that; he put the message out there for us and that we’re really grateful and we support him all the way through this.”
The Baptistes will be in close proximity again on the Jan. 31 opening night. The Stanley family has so far declined to attend or participate.
“I would be surprised if they attended but they would of course be welcome,” Bernbaum says. “The tragedy happened to everyone and I would love if they came.”
Reasonable Doubt is at Persephone Theatre’s Rawlco Radio Hall in Saskatoon Jan. 29-Feb 12.
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