Isitwendam delivers onstage supernova to Theatre Northwest

Isitwendam is the theatrical catalyst to a societal supernova: where ideas about Canada’s history collapse under the gravity of its reality. Meegwun Fairbrother’s one-man performance traces a young man’s journey for truth, marked by the lasting effects of residential schools. Through a nuanced performance packed with intriguing characters and visually impactful technical design, this one-man production is a poignant and well-timed piece for all Canadians, but especially for those of us in northern British Columbia. Its impact forces us to collapse into ourselves and analyze our interactions with others, promoting intergenerational conversations about reconciliation and the lasting effects of residential schools. Under it all is a bright hope that through this conversation, our understanding of each other will broaden, marking the final evolution of our nation’s identity to one of acceptance and true reconciliation. 

The audience’s first impression of the performance is a minimalist set, screens stretched across bare steel bones that mimic the appearance of a First Nations sweat lodge. On these screens, the audience sees a kaleidoscopic flickering of red sparks, backed by borealis gradients of green and purple. The circular nature of the downstage set piece made this image look like a supernova, foreshadowing the transformation we were all about to undergo. The visual impact of that swirling colour was alluring and the audience was lulled into quiet even before the play had begun. The projections throughout the play were beautifully done, positioning unique, thickly inked art onto the set to visually place the audience on a small reserve in Kenora.With his first, purposeful walk onto the stage, Meegwun Fairbrother captured the audience. His identity was eclipsed by a traditional First Nations drum, a canvas onto which any identity could be plastered. It is clear from the outset then, that this can be anyone’s story. The most striking feature of this play is the effortless way Fairbrother, the sole performer, transforms into the different characters. The feat of performing for 75 minutes straight, and alone on stage, leaves huge potential for error and exhaustion of the actor. Fairbrother should be commended for his success in creating and maintaining a community of characters that the audience was left breathless by. This realistic performance of all genders and all ages was enthralling and no small feat. These characters were recreations of people that most audience members would recognize as neighbours or members of their town, if not family. Some of the switches between characters were absolutely beautiful. A particularly memorable switch was from the central character Brendan White to the object of his quest - an elder who was making a claim against the residential schools. Through movement, a nightmare-trapped Brendan got caught up in his blankets, and in one fluid spin, the blanket settled around him — reminiscent of a traditional First Nations button blanket — and staring out at the audience was not the tall, driven Brendan, but a believably small, female elder.

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The limitation to having these switches were that at times audiences were taken out of the play to adjust to where we were in the setting, and who was talking, as taglines and identifiers were dropped from the script, or added later after the switch took place. At times too, the projections would seem murky or distorted, in ways that didn’t befit the scene. A disappointing moment was just after a wonderful projection - an airplane Brendan was flying on was so believable a literal plane could have been on stage. Parts of the set were removed to make windows, maximizing the visual impact. However, Brendan was then picked up in a car, and the image of the car was quite distorted, even from a central point in the audience. It was quite disappointing to go from such a wonderful projection to such a distorted, unimpressive one. However, the lighting during this scene, and for the entire show, was stunning, with golden light flashing on and off as thought they were driving through trees. 

Another striking image was the choice to have one man play all the roles of this story - from a government official to a First Nations elder - for it demonstrated how Brendan’s identity was touched and created by these other characters. It makes sense the same man plays them all, for they are what created him. Additionally, it demonstrates how these identities - no matter the gender, race, or age, all can be described as one thing: a human being, just like anyone other person in the full audience. 

The script too, must be commended for not only the creation of these nuanced characters, but the well-thought out arc that slowly immersed the audience from light, Saturday Night Live style political digs to a powerful social commentary. We were all holding our breath for the release, but even with the beautiful ending song, we were never given respite from the understanding that not only did these events happen, their effects will never be forgotten. 

Although the premise of this play is fostering an understanding, the tension around blaming for these sufferings potentially serves as a barrier for attendance. If you are hesitant, know that this play, as stated by Fairbrother himself, doesn’t want to place blame. The responsibility for the dark history of residential schools has been established and there was an apology. The problem is that for many people, that felt like enough. 

And in a very subtle way, Isitwendam creates an understanding that although the 2008 Harper apology did give recognition to the wrongful acts - which we see in our school systems today, as history classes teach about residential schools - it doesn’t remediate the trauma that still exists. And so, with this explosive performance, Fairbrother challenges the audience to converse with each other, and think about how we should come together to heal. And he gives us a hint - just like the apology, change starts with recognition.

The first important character to this idea of recognition is Brendan’s boss, a faceless government worker. His ambiguous identity allows us to envision someone we know because we all know someone like this. He spits out derogatory statements and jokes about First Nations people, capping them with a “but you know what I mean.” His character demonstrates how humour is used to mock and justify a dismissal of the problems First Nations still face. 

The harrowing realization for the audience is how perfectly familiar the cadences of the jokes are - there is not an audience member who hasn’t heard a joke in a similar vein before. There is another scene where Brendan meets a white woman who makes a snide remark about how First Nations people are less developed and need to assimilate to modernity. She then backpedals to justify this remark, recognizing like the audience has, how bad it sounds. 

In this way, the story quietly shows how the implicit, hurtful ideas about residential schools and First Nations people still exist today, reopening the wounds that have yet to heal. The fact that I, at nineteen years old, recognize some of these words used against First Nations, means that - over 10 years later - the stereotyping and insensitivity from 2008 are still present in our society. And that needs to change. 

But the play doesn’t end here. Fairbrother wove hope into the script of this piece - now that we recognize the implicit prejudices that are still in our nation, we can change it. The hopeful undertone of this play is absolutely necessary to promoting its message of understanding. If we were left thinking that Canada’s identity lies in undressed wounds and insensitivity, we would leave the theatre defeated. Hope offers an incentive, the idea that there can be appreciation, there can be conversation and there can be change. 

 

With its beautiful movement and nuanced performance, this play brings a salient history to life. The artistry in the projections, movement, and set design puts the traditional First Nations art of storytelling onto the stage, generating an important conversation about reconciliation, healing and hope. And with this supernova of a performance, the audience is forced inwards, to analyze their own connection to this story. And as Fairbrother holds up his bright canvas drum to the darkened stage, all the audience can see is the moon and all the hope it holds for a better tomorrow. 

 

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