- Title: Isitwendam (An Understanding)
- Written and performed by: Meegwun Fairbrother
- Co-created by and directed by: Jack Grinhaus
- Company: Bound to Create Theatre presented by Native Earth Performing Arts
- Venue: Aki Studio
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to March 31, 2019
Being Ojibwa means never having to say you’re sorry.
While he was writing his new play inspired by and set immediately after the 2008 Government of Canada apology to residential-school survivors, Meegwun Fairbrother tried to translate “sorry” into the Obijway language and could not find a word.
The closest Fairbrother came was isitwendam, which he translates back into English as “an understanding” – and which is now the title of his solo show having its world premiere through Bound to Create Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto.
Brendan White, the main character of Isitwendam, is a law student seeking a summer internship with the Conservative government circa 2008 – and, in his application, he cites his admiration for Brian Mulroney and notes that he recently discovered that he is half-Ojibwa.
Brendan quickly lands a position under Doug, a deputy minister of Aboriginal Affairs who feels he’s found the right man for an important job: Working to discredit applications for compensation by Indigenous people falsely claiming to be residential-school survivors or their families. “The PMO has us working double time to debunk them,” Doug tells Brendan.
And so, Brendan is quickly set on a mission to Kenora, Ont., to interview a mysterious old woman named Virginia – but, after he arrives there, he meets a series of men and women while trying to track her down who change his thoughts about his job and reconciliation, and help him discover who he really is.
As the play’s only performer, Fairbrother incarnates a half-dozen characters over the course of the show.
His Indigenous men are the most vividly drawn – the brother of Virginia who tries to sell him the chair off his front porch, constantly upping the price rather than lowering it as he haggles; or the teetotalling warrior he meets in a bar who is training for what he imagines will be an eventual showdown with the Canadian government.
Brendan White could use more definition, however. He begins the show more ignorant than you’d expect for dramatic reasons: It allows him to go on a journey from being a man with very little connection to his Indigenous background, sympathetic but slightly dismissive of residential-school experiences, to becoming one who fully understands this dark chapter of Canadian history and its trickle-down effects into his own life.
The climax of the show – in which Fairbrother, who is of Ojibwa and Scottish origin from Grassy Narrows First Nation, draws upon his skills as a singer and Northern Traditional dancer – is quite powerful.
Designer Hans Saefkow’s semicircular set is striking, with some interesting tricks hidden up its sleeves – and Andy Moro’s atmospheric layers of projections also add a lot to the storytelling in director Jack Grinhaus’s production. (Grinhaus is also credited as co-creator.)
The overall impact of Istitwendam, however, is undercut by some of the clunkiness and cartoonishness of the storytelling.
The way Fairbrother has structured his scenes – one-sided phone conversations; letters recited aloud; half-heard conversations – makes much of the writing seem contrived.
But then the whole framing of Brendan’s journey is. Deputy minister Doug is a government official straight out of a thriller – reciting his fraternity chant during his interview with Brendan, taking phone calls while out skeet shooting, and dispatching shadowy squads at a moment’s notice.
Needless to say, Isitwendam’s depiction of direct political interference in individual claims is not a realistic depiction of how the complicated and contentious process of compensation for residential-school experiences and abuse played out (and continues to play out) in real life.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with exaggeration and outright villainy for entertainment purposes – but it’s hard to reconcile these aspects of Fairbrother’s play with its attempt to explore the emotional truth of the subject matter, or the inclusion of outright documentary elements in the production, such as the video of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s apology in the House of Commons, or recorded audio testimonials from real survivors and their children.