1939 by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan

World Premiere of a Stratford Festival Commission

David Hou

Joe Szekeres

What makes 1939 work quite beautifully are its gentle moments of humour which never overpower what Director Jani Lauzon calls the incredible resilience, courage, wit, and ingenuity of five incredible student survivors from Residential schools.

What makes this Stratford commission so remarkably poignant is the very fine performances of Richard Comeau, Wahsonti:io Kirby, Kathleen MacLean, Tara Sky and John Wamsley. Their seamless ensemble work of keenly listening and appropriately responding contributed a great deal to their individual character growth. The gentle moments of humour made me pay attention and want to learn more about them. I was thankful none of the horrible atrocities from the schools were played out in front of me. I am already aware of the awful repercussions as that information subtly hovers within playwrights Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan’s touching script.

Instead, the gentle moments of humour truthfully made me pay attention and want to learn more. Okay, perhaps the running gag about Father Williams farting when he gets anxious and nervous might be a tad overplayed.

We are at an Anglican church-run Residential school in Northern Ontario in 1939. Father Williams (Mike Shara) acts as the school liaison for an upcoming visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother in later years). Although Father Williams’ enthusiasm is for hockey, it has been agreed the royal couple will be entertained with a student performance of Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ to be directed by the school’s English teacher, Sian Ap Dafydd (Sarah Dodd).

Ap Dafydd does everything she can to impose an outdated and unfamiliar style of learning to ‘speak white’ on her Indigenous students as the students rehearse and prepare for the performance. She even uses a recording of an English actress to demonstrate to the students how to ‘speak properly’ with big round vowel sounds. As the students rehearse and prepare, they begin to note just how similar the situations of the characters in Shakespeare’s play parallel their own lives. When they see this connection, they want to make the play their own instead of trying to be something they are not.

There are cringeworthy statements which emanate from Sian Ap Dafydd and Father Williams that certainly made me put my head down in shame when I heard them. A few audience members around me did that as well and the gasps/uncomfortable laughs from some indicated how they felt at hearing these derogatory comments about First Nations people. I have heard of the statement ‘in laughter/jokes there is truth’. I’m going to take this one step further as it dawned on me when I left the Studio Theatre – the uncomfortable laughter was a reminder of the truth these situations occurred, and it is up to all of us to ensure they never occur again.

Joanna Yu’s set design of the huge blackboard slate centre stage and the smaller spaces leading to the top level was quite effective and most noteworthy. Throughout the set changes, the five students would write ideas, thoughts, words, and pictures on them while Father Williams and Sian Ap Dafydd would erase them. It became clear this was a representation of the thoughts, ideas and words of First Nations being simply wiped away by the colonial education system. A simple ordinary gesture in a school setting which became disconcerting to see it being repeated over and over. Visually impressive.

There are some very strong performance highlights worth noting. I really hope to see the five artists who played the students on stage in the near future because they were dynamite. I had completely forgotten how siblings were not to mix in Residential Schools. Richard Comeau and Tara Sky (as brother and sister Joseph and Beth Summers) are together quite striking in their believability. Wahsonti:io Kirby as Evelyne Rice is firmly grounded especially in the moments where she will not allow the ‘Indian to be killed within her’. Kathleen MacLean’s Susan Blackbird becomes that one grim reminder of the terrible atrocities within the Residential schools when she appears with the horrible gash across her back – kudos to the individuals who made the wound as it looked excruciatingly real from my seat. John Wamsley’s Jean Delorme half-breed (Algonquin and Metis) is far more comfortable on the hockey rink than in the play as evidenced in his dance moves.

Sarah Dodd’s crispy clipped and clean-looking English teacher/director Sian Ap Dafydd is a reminder of some teachers within the Residential schools who did what they could to change the First Nations’ voice by encouraging the emulation of ‘big round vowels’. To me, it appeared as if Dodds made Ap Dafydd’s proverbial ‘bark worse than bite’ strongly apparent. However, there is one moment where Dodds in a strongly worded monologue to the students increased the tension within me and made me feel just a bit uneasy. Mike Shara’s doofus of bumbling Anglican priest Father Williams would rather be coaching hockey than being involved with the play. Shara motors up and down the stairs and exits stage left and right at such a fast pace, I kept wondering if the KeyStone Cops would be following behind.

Final Comments: Jani Lauzon wrote the following in her Director’s Note: “I get to hear amazing, young, inspirational, Indigenous actors speak Shakespeare inside a story that I hope will inspire you all.”

Your inspirational vision of a reconciliation task before us spoke a great deal to me, Jani. Thank you for letting me laugh and smile as I continue my journey in Truth and Reconciliation.

Running time: approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

The production runs to October 29 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street East, Stratford. For tickets, stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

1939 by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan
World Premiere of a Stratford Festival Commission

Directed by Jani Lauzon
Set Designer: Joanna Yu
Costume Designer: Asa Benally
Lighting Designer: Louise Guinand
Composer and Sound Designer: Wayne Kelso

Performers; Richard Comeau, Sarah Dodd, Jacklyn Francis, Wahsonti:io Kirby, Kathleen MacLean, Mike Shara, Tara Sky, John Wamsley

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