Back to the future

It really is possible to move forward by going back.

Theatre NorthWest is celebrating its 25th anniversary by celebrating past touchstones, and when their next play opens tonight, it will also be their very first. TNW is re-mounting The Occupation Of Heather Rose, the production that started it all for the all-local professional theatre company.

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To act the part of the titular character, a young and inexperienced nurse dispatched to a remote Canadian Aboriginal community, TNW also looked back in its own human archives. The role will be played by Julia Mackey, one of the most personally celebrated actors to ever tread the region's boards. She brought audiences to tears and cheers in her one-hander play Jake's Gift.

As with Jake's Gift, Mackey will be aided in the direction by Dirk Van Stralen. Both of them live and work in Wells, the Cariboo hamlet connected to Barkerville.

"Because this is a return to that first show ever done by Theatre NorthWest, we want to be good stewards of that opportunity," said Van Stralen. "But, too, we wanted to put the play into the modern context so we have enveloped the production with everything that's come since it was written in the 1980s."

The audience won't get any re-vamping of the script, the words are honoured as they were written by celebrated playwright Wendy Lill (the award-winning writer went on to become a Member of Parliament and is still an effective social development activist).

The set and staging, however, are designed to cast the play in a 21st century light.

An arrangement of papers on the floor are pages from documents like The Indian Act and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Report.

The leaves on the background trees number exactly 94, one for each of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission's recommendations.

The script references both Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland and Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness, books that followed an ill-equipped lone stranger plunging into a surreal and dangerous realm. In accordance with those, and the primary story about Heather Rose striding with false confidence into the desolation of the Snake Lake Reserve, the production team built the on-stage decor "to show how skewed it all is, no 90-degree angles anywhere," said Van Stralen, "and to further the upside down world of it all, the branches of the trees are made to look like they're growing downwards and resemble a root system."

Mackey is embracing the role with a sad realization.

"What struck me right away was how, even though it was written in the 1980s and it has some dated language in some ways, just how relevant it is today," she said. "The issues it brings to the surface are not at all resolved."

The play is a raw, gutsy confrontation of the Indigenous-colonial culture clash that has defined the worst side of Canadian history, but it is also infused with joy and humanity. As with that history itself, there were colonial abuses and institutionalized prejudice but also outbreaks of friendship and rashes of mutual support.

"The word 'occupation' means a lot of things in this play," said Mackey. "It pertains to her nurse's profession, and it also means something that's been on her mind a lot, and it also speaks of the takeover of colonization.

"As a new and very naive nurse, she has a lot of preconceived notions about this world she's going into and a lot of ill-conceived notions about how to solve the problems she encounters there," Mackey added. "But what she saw and experienced there helped change her and reshape her views, and it has occupied her mind ever since."

"It may as well have been written last week," said Van Stralen for how the same white privilege exists today - how mainstream culture doesn't know what it doesn't know about Aboriginal culture by virtue of the fact white people do not commonly interact with First Nations on their own turf under the terms of their living conditions. The biases - some indirect and some aggressive - that hold down Aboriginal people and communities are unseen and unfelt by non-Aboriginal people.

The Occupation Of Heather Rose opens tonight and runs at TNW until Feb. 24. Tickets are on sale now online at the TNW website or in person at Books & Company.

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