In describing Children of God, his acclaimed theatre production, Corey Payette says he wrote a story he and others needed to see.
The Vancouver-based playwright’s musical drama, about an Oji-Cree family whose children are taken away to a residential school in Northern Ontario, offers a narrative about resilience, healing and reconciliation.
It’s heavy stuff, and it put Payette on a seven-year journey from script conception early this decade to first staging in the spring of 2017 at a theatre in Vancouver. This month, as part of a B.C. tour, the musical debuts in Surrey at the arts centre’s main stage, on March 22 and 23.
“Back in 2011 when I started writing it,” Payette told the Now-Leader, “it was from a place of anger and frustration that this history had been silenced, and that even I had little knowledge of this history.”
Brave, powerful, emotional, healing, beautiful – these are just a few of the words used to describe Children of God, and even Payette himself calls his play intense.
“The reactions to it differ,” he explained. “The response I get is that so many people needed a show like this, to see a show like this. This story needed to be told, and people need to understand the history.”
The characters, which Payette says are not based on real people, include Rita, “a mother who was never let past the school’s gate,” and her kids, Tom and Julia, “who never knew she came.”
With song, Children of God promises “a thrilling blend of ancient traditions and contemporary realities, celebrating resilience and the power of the Indigenous cultural spirit,” according to promoters of the Surrey dates.
The show’s study guide explains how Canada’s residential school system was designed to “steal” Aboriginal children from their home communities and forcibly turn them into Euro-Christian citizens of Canadian society. “As former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s famous epithet from his 2008 apology to residential school survivors goes, the residential schools were meant ‘to kill the Indian in the child.’”
Produced by Urban Ink, Children of God has a content advisory: “This play contains explicit descriptions and depictions of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and suicide, which can be distressing, traumatic, and/or triggering for members of the audience.”
At Surrey Arts Centre, emotional support workers will be on hand to provide support to audience members who may require it.
“Everywhere we go, we travel with an emotional support team,” Payette said. “These triggers can happen at any time. The show works really well when there are a lot of Indigenous people in the audience, and some of them will need those services, but others won’t. But it’s there if needed, and also for people who have had other traumas in their lives. We know that sometimes the show can become too much.”
Payette said he’s thankful that operators of Surrey Arts Centre “recognize the need for this kind of work to be shown in the community. That’s important. This is a chance for community building, a discussion about this subject, and we do have a post-show discussion about it, a 30-minute conversation about reconciliation.
“These days,” he continued, “the subject of residential schools is talked about, but when I was writing this play, the topic really wasn’t discussed. It was a great shame of our country, and I imagine that’s why people didn’t want to talk about it.”
The Surrey stagings are at 8 p.m. nightly on March 22 and 23. Tickets range in price from $29 to $49 via tickets.surrey.ca, or call 604-501-5566.
The current touring cast includes Dillan Chiblow (as Tom/Tommy), Michelle St. John (Rita), Michelle Bardach (Joanna/Secretary), Sarah Carlé (Sister Bernadette), Aaron M. Wells (Wilson/Fight Captain), Cheyenne Scott (Julia), David Keeley (Father Christopher), Jacob MacInnes (Vincent) and Kaitlyn Yott (Elizabeth).