Children of God an intensely powerful experience

The Citadel Theatre’s production of Corey Payette’s new work, Children of God, is the most unusual musical you’ve ever seen. It is a noble and surprisingly successful, an effort at marrying two of theatre’s most widely divergent aspects – the musical and a social drama so raw that it has traumatized an entire country.

It shouldn’t work – but it does.

That’s mostly due to Payette’s own varied background. The writer-composer-director is an Oji-Cree. He didn’t live through the residential school system himself, but there are few people who grew up on his reserve who weren’t affected by the residual pain that lingered long after the last appalling structure was closed in 1996. Payatte is an active supporter of the preservation of native culture and language. He also has a background in contemporary musical theatre.

His daring concept is to combine the two elements.

I doubt if anyone other than an aboriginal playwright could have written Children of God. The compelling subject is approached with unbending seriousness. The final feeling is one of having been moved, even uplifted, by the indomitable spirit of a group of very young people who maintain a tenacious humanity through horrendous torment.

We first meet Tom (Dillan Chiblow) trying, not too well, to cope with a messy middle age. He’s living with his mother, Rita, (Sandy Scofield) after his marriage has broken up. He’s unemployed and angry, clumsily trying to re-establish a childhood relationship with Wilson (Raes Calvert), who shared the hell, and brings with him a flood of terrible memories. Wilson is trying to establish a new life by denying his native heritage.

Tom is only four years old when he is pulled from his family and shipped off to school. He and his sister, Julia (Cheyenne Scott), are soon exposed to the horrors the children face on a daily basis. A blindly hypocritical priest named Father Christopher (David Keeley) oversees the forced eradication of language and culture. The demented cleric grinds out, “Discipline needs to be enforced,” as the kids are beaten. His favourite punishments: strip and hose the child, throw him or her into solitary confinement or deny food for a week. Sister Bernadette (Sarah Carle) is a grudging accomplice who slowly grows a conscience.

We meet the kids themselves – longing for their parents. Hungry, they sing, “The food is slop.” They wear identical uniforms – the boys all have peaked caps, the girls in bangs. The only support they can find comes from each other. In one scene the boys play cowboys and indians, squabbling about who gets to be the cowboy. Mostly, they remember home. Some try to run away.

The children sing, “God only knows how much we take …” and in an effort to find some kind of rationale for their behaviour, priest and nun intone the same lyrics as if, somehow, they are the real victims. There’s not a lot of room for an actor to emotionally manoeuver here but the two clerics manage to find some complexity in creatures for whom there is little forgiveness.

The children cry out in hopelessness, “I can’t imagine a world any different then this.” Sister Bernadette sings, “Their spirits are broken.” After a particularly dreadful sexual attack, a distraught Julia laments, “Can’t you hear me crying in the night, Lord?” The Lord is a long way away from these abandoned young souls. It is very hard not to share her tears.

All the actors are committed to their roles – playing the characters both as children and adults.  They are particularly adept in creating the rhythms, speech patterns and gestures that define their various ages. The performers sing as well as they act. Particularly effective is Scofield’s weathered and heartbroken mother – she has a lovely voice heard to great effect in various indigenous chants. A fine actress, she sums up the pain felt by the parents as she describes waiting to see her children but never allowed past the gates of the institution.

The music, as you might imagine, in mostly in a minor key and shows off Payette’s musical reach – ranging from anthems and powerful ballads to stirring native drumming.

What might have been a patchwork turns out to be a superb piece of theatre that reaches across time, cultural divides and musical forms. Fired by Payette’s ferocious integrity, Children of God is a revelation – particularly in one scene where modern music gives way to the mesmerizing sound of native drumming. Years of colonial oppression falls away and the children exult in the celebration of their own music. The moment is transformative and as fine and moving as any piece of theatre I have seen this year.

Designer Marshall McMahen’s vast set is framed by an evocative dark sky that turns an angry red as the children are abused.

As you might have gathered, Children of God is an intense experience. You can understand why the Citadel offers quiet spaces in the lobby. Grief counselors are available if you need them.

Somehow, Payette manages to bring it all together as tragedy turns to hope in a profound and affirmative ending.

Children of God, written and directed by Corey Payette, is produced by the Citadel in association with Western Canada Theatre in collaboration with the National Arts Centre in association with Raven Theatre and The Cultch. It is presented on the Shoctor Stage through March 24th.

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