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Cheyenne Scott (Julia), & Trish Lindstrom (Sister Bernadette) in Children of God.EMILYCOOPER

Children of God is the work of theatre Canada needs right now. A musical about this country's shameful residential schools history and the continued impact on contemporary lives, Children of God had its world premiere in Vancouver over the long Victoria Day weekend during this year of Canada 150 celebrations (Canada 150+ is what the City of Vancouver is calling it). It also comes at a time when First Nations activism is, with a fierce integrity, bringing to light issues that have long been ignored by the mainstream.

Children of God demonstrates the tremendous power of live theatre, with the most punch-to-the-emotional-gut ending I have ever experienced in my many years as a theatregoer. It is a work of art that does not descend into pedagogy but, unless you are a stone, should send you from the theatre with an enlightened heaviness – the ugly truth of the work turning around and around in your mind and heart.

Written and directed by Urban Ink artistic director Corey Payette – of Oji-Cree heritage – the musical will travel after its Vancouver run to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa later this spring.

It is far from perfect; it needs work. But to employ an overused cliché for the sake of all that is good: if you see one work of theatre this year, make it this one.

The musical is set in two time periods. Tom – Tommy as a boy (Herbie Barnes) – is an unemployed, down-on-his-luck and easily angered man, separated from the mother of his two children. When he goes back to the reserve to stay with his mother (Cathy Elliott) and to try to find a job, he encounters an old schoolmate, Wilson (Kevin Loring) and finds himself confronting the demons that have coloured his life.

And so we are transported to the past, to the residential school Tommy and his big sister Julia (Cheyenne Scott) have been sent to. It is run with a heavy hand by the church; Father Christopher (Michael Torontow) warning Sister Bernadette (Trish Lindstrom) that "much more than talk is needed" if they are to accomplish their state-sanctioned objective: to erase these children's heritage, including the "gibberish" that is their language.

The temptation to make the school authoritarians one-dimensional evil-doers must have been strong, but Payette resists, and Lindstrom and Torontow give their characters complexity and depth.

The students wear identical uniforms and sport identical hairstyles – heads shaved for the boys, thick black hair cut short with bangs for the girls. The children are lonely, hungry and abused. Anyone familiar with the treatment meted out at residential schools will recognize the details of the experience.

The children find comfort in each other and their games; in one wonderful scene, the boys watch The Lone Ranger on TV and then fight over who gets to be a cowboy and who gets to be an Indian. The kids try to remember details from home. Julia hates it so much that she repeatedly tries to run away.

Watching with a lump of shame and horror in my throat, I saw the rapping of the children's hands with a ruler as an ugly reverse-parallel to the beautiful banging of the drum that starts the performance, but which the children can no longer hear at school.

The issues are dealt with unblinkingly but also with sensitivity. Recognizing the triggering nature of the material, Urban Ink has worked with two Masters of Social Work students at the University of British Columbia to organize a program of on-site support. Emotional support workers are available at every performance; an office has been converted to a calm room where anybody having a difficult time can take a break and have some tea or a chat or just sit in silence; a storage room has been turned into a counselling room for anyone needing one-on-one attention. This is available to anyone; while the effects of this play are of course particularly profound and difficult for Indigenous audiences, anyone could find themselves triggered by this story of what happens when children are forcibly taken from their parents by the state and put into an abusive situation.

For all the need for this production, it would be futile were it not good theatre. Payette has written a fine work with some standout numbers, Gimikwenden Ina (Do you remember?) and Away We Ride among them. The music, sorrowful and heavy on the minor key, is played live by a cellist, violist, guitarist and pianist (music director Allen Cole). Marshall McMahen's set, a simple landscape lit by Jeff Harrison, is a moody stunner. Kudos to movement director Raes Calvert, especially working with a large cast and a smallish stage.

But it is an uneven work. The second act is much stronger than the first. And during the performance I saw, the night after opening night, there were quite a few bumps – awkward exchanges, stumbling over dialogue, some uneven vocals.

My hope is that these kinks get worked out by the time the production travels to Ottawa, where I hope people with power and influence in our nation's capital find the time to see it. (And where I hope the stage feels less cramped.) Urban Ink managing director Dawn Brennan told me she would like the production to travel across the country next year. It should.

The truth of Truth and Reconciliation is more than facts. There is an emotional truth as well that is not always accessible to those of us who are removed from the events. Children of God is an important work that opens the door to this understanding.

At The Cultch's York Theatre in Vancouver until June 3. At the National Arts Centre in Ottawa June 7-18.

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