'My Sister's Rage' by Yolanda Bonnell

Tarragon Theatre

Cylla von Tiedemann

Joe Szekeres

Bold and fierce direction by playwright Yolanda Bonnell

The multi-layers upon layers story of anger, frustration, rage, pathos and yes, humour clearly seeped through this love story of family first, always family.

Directed with a bold and fierce intensity by Yolanda Bonnell, ‘My Sister’s Rage’ involves three generations of a ma’iingan-wolf clan family who gather when the unseen Matriarch ends up in a coma. There are three sisters: Sandra/Soochie (Shandra Spears Bombay), Olivia/Livvy (Nicole Joy-Fraser) and Renna/Ren (Ange Loft). We also meet the children: Valerie (Samantha Brown), Tash (Ty J Sloane), Laney (Pesch Nepoose) and Stephie (Theresa Cutknife). We also meet the eccentrically odd Wanda (Monique Mojica), an old friend of the gravely ill matriarch. The children view her as weird but there is more to learn about Wanda as the story progresses.

It is in this collective gathering that the family works through their grief and begins to heal from a horrifying incident in the past. While the aunts (who are sisters) gather at the bedside of their mother, the cousins have assembled at the Matriarch’s house by the backyard fire pit.

This opening night was called a Relaxed performance. Audience members could get up if they needed, could leave the room, could laugh or cry softly or loudly and do whatever they felt needed in their reaction to the story. A dim light overhead would allow audience members to leave the auditorium. I have never experienced this type of performance at all, and I didn’t notice anyone leave. I believe all performances of ‘My Sister’s Rage’ will be relaxed.

There were several moments of raucous laughter at what was played out on the stage. I may have smiled at a couple of those moments, but I didn’t laugh out loud. When others around me did, I kept thinking am I missing something? Is there some in-line or in-joke thought in the script that I’m not getting? I hope that wasn’t the case as I don’t care when something funny on stage occurs for a group of people because that doesn’t seem fair to me. Either we all laugh communally or dispense with the reference.

The intimacy of Tarragon’s Extraspace stage drew was used to its fullest extent thanks to Rebecca Vandevelde’s functional suggestive two-level set design of different locales. There is the front yard of the Matriarch’s house stage right. Stage left functions as the hospital room where the unseen Matriarch lies in a coma. Centre stage is the firepit and the bed of the Matriarch. On the top level is the open-air home and space of Wanda. a good friend of the gravely ill Matriarch.

Miquelon Rodriguez’s Sound Design remains primo throughout. There is a beautifully sorted arrangement of sounds to hear from cawing crows to the machines keeping the matriarch alive. Echo Zhou’s Lighting Design sharply focuses on the heightened intensity of each scene needed.

A great deal of information is packed into this two-hour and fifteen-minute production. It does take some time to get the plot going; however, it’s important not to lose focus because the playwright dutifully wants us to get to know who these unique individuals are and their relationships with each other. In her Programme Note, Bonnell wrote the play “is a snapshot of a very real lived experience …about leaning into the healing of love, family, culture and our ancestors.”

The family appears to be one of the most essential elements for Bonnell. She had a difficult childhood, but she lovingly speaks about the laughter she grew up with in her family even when there were so many struggles.

This family in the play indeed struggles not only for themselves as First Nations people but also grieves heavily for personal reasons as we tragically discover. We are introduced to this discovery in the Programme: ‘What They Know’.

But the beautiful contrast to this grief is their spiritual connection to the world and space around them. What becomes so powerful at the top of the show is the simultaneously breathing in and out of the actors as an ensemble. For me, it was as if this moment was a calling to the First Nations spirits to enter the being of the artists to assist and guide in telling ‘My Sister’s Rage’. Intriguing and fascinating to watch and hear their breath. I must give credit to Facilitator Aria Evans for the seamless movement of the actors in their connection to the world around them.

Nicole Joy-Fraser’s performance strength as Livvy, (the sister who is trying to keep things together by staying at the rez and looking after her daughter and her growing ill mother) resonates continuously throughout. Whether she liked it or not, Livvy becomes the role model for all within the family. Her apparent hesitation in welcoming back her artist sister, Ren, who returns to visit their mother, is palpably rife with tension. Ange Loft’s performance strength as Ren lies in sometimes taking everything in and not saying a word until necessary. Sandra/Soochie is the ‘good time’ sister who hauntingly harbours the horrible reality this family has had to deal with for a very long time. Shandra Spears Bombay’s complete breakdown is very real when that reality is made clear to the audience.

With all this stuff simmering and boiling for years, it’s no wonder the third generation of this family is challenged. But some of the humorous moments in the journey to adulthood overshadow those times. The scene where Theresa Cutknife’s Stephie tries smoking a cigarette and then pot for the first time is rather amusing in watching when she decides to exhale. Ty J Sloane’s Tash might appear superficially as the two-spirited individual who doesn’t care about anything but is believably crushed when they believe their one true friend, sister Valerie, turns on them and tells something that should not have been uttered aloud. As Tash’s sister, Valerie, Samantha Brown matches Sloane’s performance strength at this moment. Pesch Nepoose as Laney (Livvy’s daughter) effectively matches her mother's stoicism in not revealing her true feelings because if she did, those emotions will come pouring out and will not stop. Laney must deal with the changes in her life.

Monique Mojica’s performance as Wanda remains captivating and charming. In her Programme Note, Bonnell stated she evoked her Auntie Rocky in creating such a weird oddball as Wanda, and I kept wondering what her proper place within this family is.

And then it finally struck me in the second act.

In the continual breaking of the fourth wall where she speaks to the audience, Wanda becomes the spiritual guiding force of allowing the characters to laugh. She even makes the connection for the audience to laugh either at the dumb jokes or at a couple of ‘naughty’ ones. Mojica rarely left the upper level of the playing space, but her integral spiritual presence abides throughout even when the focus was not on her. For example, when the young adults back at the Matriarch’s house are discussing family issues or a contentious topic that leads to one or two cousins taking opposing sides, Mojica never upstaged the action at all. Instead, she quietly listened and heard what was said by someone, digested it and, if needed, might be able to find some humour within the dramatic sadness or poignancy of the moment.

For me, the conclusion of the play where Wanda remains on the top level with the actors around the fire below became a striking and visually breathtaking image that is still clear in my mind as I finish this article two days later. I’ve included this picture at the top. For me, this moment of quiet rage connected with an immortal spiritual connection can help those affected slowly move forward out of this grief.

I still have so much to learn about our First Nations peoples and their culture. ‘My Sister’s Rage’ gave me that opportunity to continue my journey.

Running Time: approximately two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.

‘My Sister’s Rage’ runs to November 6, 2022, in the Extraspace Theatre at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. For tickets call the Box Office at (416) 531-1827 or visit www.tarragontheatre.com for more information.

‘My Sister’s Rage’ by Yolanda Bonnell is a Tarragon production in association with Studio 180 Theatre and TO Live.

Directed by Yolanda Bonnell
Set Design: Rebecca Vandevelde
Costume Design: Julia Surich
Lighting Design: Echo Zhou
Sound Design: Miquelon Rodriguez
Stage Management: Victoria Wang
Cultural and Community Consultation: Jesse Wabegijig

Performers: Shandra Spears Bombay, Samantha Brown, Theresa Cutknife, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Ange Loft, Monique Mojica, Pesch Nepoose, Ty J Sloane

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