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Nicole Joy-Fraser, Shandra Spears Bombay and Ange Loft in My Sister's Rage.Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Tarragon Theatre

  • Title: My Sister’s Rage
  • Written by: Yolanda Bonnell
  • Director: Yolanda Bonnell
  • Actors: Shandra Spears Bombay, Samantha Brown, Theresa Cutknife, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Ange Loft, Monique Mojica, Pesch Nepoose, Ty J Sloane
  • Company: Tarragon Theatre with studio180theatre and TO Live
  • Venue: Tarragon Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Run: To Nov. 6

We could all benefit from crying, connecting with one another, reminiscing about those we’ve lost and, above all, laughing a little more.

That’s the main takeaway from My Sister’s Rage, a new play that premiered at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto Thursday night.

Written and directed by Anishinaabe-Ojibwe and South Asian playwright Yolanda Bonnell, it tells the story of a ma’iingan-wolf clan family, made up of women and two-spirits, as they navigate the death of their matriarch while processing their grief from a tragic incident in the past.

Before the play began, the cast explained that this would be a relaxed performance: meaning low lights over the audience, the freedom to come and go from the theatre as needed and permission to keep phones on (as long as they’re on silent).

The cast also encouraged the audience to be loud, to interact with the piece in whatever way we saw fit. It’s a style of performance for which disabled communities have long been advocating, and it’s becoming more common as theatre companies look for new ways to be inclusive. While the concept may initially seem counterintuitive to those accustomed to a more formal, traditional theatre experience, it ultimately led to a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere that allowed for complete immersion into the deeply moving story unfolding on stage.

The play follows the aunties as they camp out in their dying mother’s hospital room, with the tension between the sisters slowly building as Olivia’s (Nicole Joy-Fraser) resentment for being left to care for their ailing mother becomes clear. Renna (Ange Loft) moved to the big city for her career, while Sandra (Shandra Spears Bombay) has been lost in alcoholism since the murder of her 13-year-old-daughter Andrea.

Joy-Fraser’s performance is a particular standout, filled with raw emotion and genuine vulnerability. Loft and Bombay deliver slightly uneven performances (lines are fumbled here and there, taking the audience out of the moment), though they too find moments of authenticity.

Their sick mother, it’s worth noting, is not played by an actor but rather represented by a table covered with a white tablecloth and a red piece of fabric over top.

The younger cousins, meanwhile, spend their time at the grandmother’s house by the backyard firepit. Though they’re initially guarded with one another, Andrea’s older siblings, Valerie (Samantha Brown) and Tash (Ty J Sloane), eventually open up enough to reveal how their sister’s death has affected their mental health and their relationship with their mother and each other. Both actors deliver heartfelt, emotional performances that might move even the most stoic of audience members to tears.

Younger cousins Laney (Pesch Nepoose) and Stephie (Theresa Cutknife) likewise contend with their grief throughout these interactions, and Cutknife’s impressive ability to tap into her character’s authentic feelings stands out.

Open this photo in gallery:

My Sister's Rage tells the story of a ma’iingan-wolf clan family, made up of women and two-spirits, as they navigate the death of their matriarch while processing their grief from a tragic incident in the past.Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Tarragon Theatre

The play takes audiences on an emotional roller coaster – one that dares viewers to bear witness to the raw, unfiltered sentiments associated with loss and trauma. In this production, these messy, often privately kept emotions are laid bare for all to see. And thankfully, each time a scene ends in which the actors go to that deep, wounded place – taking the audience right there with them – we are almost immediately met with welcome comic relief from Wacky Wanda (Monique Mojica).

Wanda, the eccentric old lady who sits on her porch and observes the happenings on the reservation, serves as a kind of narrator and storyteller. She remains on stage throughout the performance, invested in each interaction from the background as if she were directly involved. In this way, she seems to represent the characters’ ancestors, a moving method of communicating that the ones we’ve lost are always with us. “So, did you like my story?” she asks at the end.

Mojica gives a stunningly committed performance as Wanda, filled with expert comedic timing and evocative depth.

Through corny jokes, sexual innuendo, physical comedy and sincere, unadulterated joy, Wanda frequently breaks the fourth wall and gives the audience permission to laugh at the hard stuff, to breathe a much-needed sigh of relief – just as the characters do throughout the piece.

Indeed, despite the serious themes, the characters laugh often. And each time the sound of a wind gust plays through the speakers, they pause to take a deep breath, which we eventually understand to be a message of guidance from their ancestors.

The motif of the land and the community’s connection to it is ever-present throughout the play. It’s in the set, which is mostly made up of trees and wooden furniture. It’s in the wind and bird and wave sounds, the lights that represent the stars, the projection of the moon. It’s in the inner-conflict Renna and Stephie express about having left the reserve and the sacred land on which it lives.

The harms of colonization and assimilation are highlighted throughout this play, daring non-Indigenous audience members to contend with what we as settlers have done to Indigenous communities, their cultures and their family bonds for generations.

If it wasn’t already clear, this play isn’t for those who are afraid to feel.

Ultimately, though, it is a story that anyone can relate to; about how the most tragic of situations can bring a fractured family back together just as it can tear one apart. In My Sister’s Rage, the death of their family matriarch reminds the characters of their deep bonds and allows them to heal the resentments that have built up over time. It is cathartic to witness.

Amid a multitude of tragedies unfolding around the world, many of us are walking around with a pit of grief deep in our stomachs. My Sister’s Rage tells us not to turn away from it and to feel that grief in its entirety, yes, but it also tells us to counter its heaviness with a full belly laugh every now and again. We’d be wise to oblige.

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