There's truth and there's reconciliation, but what about good old-fashioned revenge?
In Drew Hayden Taylor's latest play, God and the Indian, a Cree woman confronts an Anglican assistant bishop over abuse that took place at a residential school 30 years earlier.
Panhandling on a different corner than usual, Johnny Indian (a likeable Lisa C. Ravensbergen) spots Rev. King (Thomas Hauff) getting a coffee – and then follows him to his office.
Sneaking in through a broken window, she arrives with a bleeding hand and uncertain intentions. Johnny claims to remember King – and hints that she suffered sexual abuse at his hands. King claims not to remember Johnny at all, and, while he admits to having heard stories about his colleagues, vehemently denies having ever abused anyone.
The stage is set for a dramatic standoff – especially after Johnny pockets King's cellphone, signalling a dark conclusion.
God and the Indian is a departure for Taylor, known for his earthy, accessible and occasionally outrageous sense of humour. His past work has been primarily comic, his Blues Quartet series of plays penned specifically as a way to counter a preponderance of "tragic" or "stoic" portrayals of Canada's First Nations people.
The old, familiar Taylor has not entirely been banished here – jokes about Tim Hortons abound, for example. There are a few coarser jabs, too. "When he said, 'Suffer the little children,' did you have to take it so seriously?" Johnny says, pointing at a picture of Jesus on King's wall.
But God and the Indian was the result of a challenge issued by former Native Earth Performing Arts artistic director Yvette Nolan for the Ojibwa playwright, columnist and filmmaker to write something serious. The results are mixed; the set-up grabs, but the structure doesn't hold.
The play premiered in 2013 with Tantoo Cardinal in the cast – and it is now on a two-city tour with new actors, first touching down at Native Earth in Toronto and then heading to the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver.
Both of these cities have seen productions of two-person plays where a woman confronts a man for societal or individual crimes in recent years – and, in tone, God and the Indian sits somewhere between the David Ives fluffy fantasy Venus in Fur and the dark dread of David Harrower's Blackbird.
What keeps God and the Indian from truly taking flight is that Taylor avoids dramaturgical decisions that would nail down the stakes. Is Johnny meant to be an allegorical avenger or a specific victim?
Johnny – her original name is concealed until late in the play – slowly but surely tells a personal story of how the residential schools robbed her of her culture, her brother and her innocence while the back wall of King's office – in a striking set designed by Lauchlin Johnson – temporarily becomes translucent to reveal a stark cot, a Bible or a box of oranges. She also outlines the reverberating effects the years at St. David's have had on her life since, leading to her living on the streets.
But the opportunity for fireworks is neutered by Taylor's overly kindly depiction of King. The assistant bishop – not unlike the audience – listens with an almost entirely sympathetic ear to Johnny. He has a copy of John S. Milloy's A National Crime on his shelf that he pulls out, while at another point King shows Johnny a photo of him present at the apology for residential schools that Archbishop Michael Peers offered on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada in 1993.
He's compassionate, well versed in his church's crimes – and offers Johnny a variety of possible lifelines out of her situation. (Hauff, who stumbled over lines on opening night, gets stuck in a rut of enlightened exasperation.)
There are moments in Renae Morriseau's production that do become tense – but the central question of whether Johnny or King is remembering the past correctly comes in and out of focus. Toying with the idea of false memories is dangerous territory, but the chief problem with God and the Indian is not that it is ambiguous, but that it is uncertain. The possibilities Taylor offers up at the end seem like a playwright being indecisive about an ending.
Though it toys with revenge tragedy, God and the Indian ultimately shares in the purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that is winding down its work the day after the play closes in Vancouver. It's fuelled by the desire for the stories of residential schools to be shared and listened to and for what happened to be remembered – and for bystanders as well as perpetrators to accept responsibility, and accept that responsibility does not end with official apologies and photo ops. It's an admirable attitude in real life, but I wish that, as a playwright, Taylor had really taken the gloves off and gone no more Mr. Nice Guy.
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