For even the most harmonious family, Thanksgiving dinner can be a fraught event, as family members tip-toe around potential minefields – personal and political. Add the element of the holiday's origins to an Indigenous family celebration, and conditions may be ripe for a family blow-up.
This past Wednesday, with leftover turkey still occupying real estate in many Canadian refrigerators, Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre Company mounted the world premiere of Thanks for Giving.
The play is written and directed by Kevin Loring, who was recently named the first artistic director of Indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre, and in 2009 won the Governor-General's Award for his first published play, Where the Blood Mixes.
In Thanks for Giving, Loring, who is N'lakap'amux from the Lytton First Nation, has created a family with a litany of issues. Nan (Margo Kane) is the matriarch holding the family together. Her daughter, Sue (Andrea Menard), has problems with addiction; Sue's son, John (caacumhi – Aaron M. Wells), wants to join the army; his sister, Marie (Tai Amy Grauman), is a brainy firebrand who is worried about coming out to her family – but brings her girlfriend, Sam (Leslie Dos Remedios), to Thanksgiving dinner anyway (she's her roommate, she tells them). Meanwhile, Sue's nephew Clayton (Deneh'Cho Thompson) is happy living a simple life driving a truck. Nobody seems to get along too well with Clifford (Tom McBeath), Nan's non-Indigenous husband, who likes to hunt.
The play opens with a bear – a stunning grizzly, moving toward the audience through a magical forest set, danced beautifully by Shyama-Priya.
Then, in come Clifford, John and Clayton, who were out hunting ahead of Thanksgiving dinner, and it becomes quickly apparent that things aren't going to turn out well – not for the bear, certainly, but probably not for the family either. And not for this play; at least not on opening night, when I saw it.
Thanks for Giving is the twelfth play to come out of the Arts Club's Silver Commissions Project, its new play development program. It is an important story, but weakly told.
While the premise is compelling, the story is critically important, and Kane, Grauman and McBeath were all terrific, the play faltered with an often-weak cast, clunky action and overwritten dialogue – often delivered in a strangely rote manner. This wasn't always the actors' fault. Even Grauman, who really is a force, struggles under the weight of heavily didactic dialogue, when, at Thanksgiving dinner, she lectures her family on the origins of the holiday while they sit around a table on a rotating, merry-go-round-like platform (a good staging solution that went on too long).
The information Marie shares is crucial and upsetting; this is not the happy pilgrim Thanksgiving story you learned at school or while watching TV. If only Loring had written it less like a lecture and more like real dinner-table dialogue.
Loring has a lot to say – about colonialism, reconciliation, residential schools, intergenerational trauma and its contemporary effects, but also about the rich, matriarchal First Nations culture, Indigenous respect for the land, the need for new perspectives on history. But one of the play's failings is that he tries to pack too much in (perhaps a familiar post-Thanksgiving dinner feeling). I applaud the ambition of the piece, but more focus on fewer issues or events would have served the story well.
There were some good laughs and beautiful cultural elements – the Bear Dance was intoxicating, and the bear itself looked magnificent. The set is spectacular; designer Ted Roberts harvested poplar trees in Lytton to create this rain forest. Sound designer James Coomber also travelled there, where he collected traditional song recordings from the early 20th century that are incorporated into the show's wonderful soundscape.
We need plays like this; perhaps this play, with tweaks. For true reconciliation, we all need to learn more about this country's true history. But at the theatre, it needs to feel more like art and less like instruction.
Thanks for Giving is at the Granville Island Stage until Nov. 4.