Just entering the theatre for the premiere performance of Children of God, you could tell what a monumental opening this was going to be.
Corey Payette’s new musical speaks from the heart to one of the most important subjects facing all inhabitants of the territory that we now call Canada: the impact of the residential school system. And it does so at a critical moment: in the midst of a wave of cultural change that’s been energized by First Nations activism and by Senator Murray Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
See this show and make absolutely certain that you stay for the discussion afterwards. During the opening night conversation, several people shared their direct and indirect experiences of residential schools. Some were survivors of the schools: they were kidnapped and incarcerated. They were also abused. Others are feeling the multigenerational effects of the system, which, in attempting to destroy languages, has come dangerously close to destroying ways of seeing the world. This kind of personal witness is invaluable.
The cultural importance of Children of God right here and right now far outweighs the importance of my critical assessment of the musical itself and of this production. I hesitated to write this review because it’s going to be mixed; I wasn’t sure that it would be helpful to present opinions that might be distracting or appear disrespectful—especially as a white guy potentially assessing the representation of experiences that are formative to First Nations folks. But artistic dialogue is also part of the process of coming to terms with our national history, and I was invited to attend Children of God as a critic. So, in a spirit of respect and gratitude, here goes.
Children of God follows two siblings, Julia and her little brother Tommy, who are in the same school. Shortly after we meet her, Julia tries to escape. Rita, their mom, tries to visit them, but a nun turns her away at the gate. We also see scenes of some of the characters years later, as they churn in the aftermath. There’s lightness, too: playfulness and mutual support among the kids, and an ending that is so full of hope as well as sorrow that I can’t imagine that anyone in the opening-night audience went home unmoved.
Unfortunately, Children of God is also boring at times, especially during Act 1. The story is predictable: pretty much the minute we meet Julia, we know what her fate will be. The action doesn’t kick into gear until near the end of the first act when the priest, Father Christopher, visits Julia in the school’s cellar, where she is being punished with solitary confinement. Because the book tries to cover massive amounts of territory within its two-hour span, the writing often feels illustrative and superficial: physical abuse, sexual assault, the trauma of separation, religious conflict, alcoholism, and intergenerational aftershocks are all mentioned, but none of these areas are fully or subtly explored.
Payette directed Children of God. He also wrote the book, music, and lyrics. The lyrics are problematic—flatly explanatory rather than poetic—and the rhyming is pedestrian: “God only knows what we’ve been through/If he could see us, what would he do?”; I remember all of it still/I can see you running up a hill.”
Payette’s music is more successful: Tommy’s Act 2 ballad, “Wonderland”, is a mournful rock anthem. And, although this isn’t a hummable-tunes musical—it’s not My Fair Lady—the score is engaging. Under Allen Cole’s musical direction, it’s well played by the four-piece band. And everybody in the cast can sing. Vocally, Cheyenne Scott (Julia) and Herbie Barnes (Tommy) are particularly impressive.
And there are real glories in this production. Although her part is underwritten, Cathy Elliott rips your heart out as Rita, the mom. There’s a scene in Act 2 in which Rita finally understands the true tragedy of one of her children’s lives. She howls in pain and walks off the stage: it’s ordinary and it’s devastating. Trish Lindström maintains a fierce commitment to the journey of the severe but ethical Sister Bernadette. And, off the top, Michael Torontow manages an easy kind of charm as Father Christopher, even though, watching him, you are inevitably wary. Playing a wry secretary from the business world, Kim Harvey provides the comic highlight of the evening. (The appalling wig helps.) And, although the convention of adults playing kids is almost always awkward, Barnes finds engaging innocence and goofiness in the young Tommy, and Scott is movingly frank and vulnerable as Julia.
Payette’s physical staging is flawless: with its many scene changes, this show is a beast, but Payette handles them seamlessly—with help, I suspect, from Raes Calvert, who is the movement director. In the outstanding conceptual moment of the production, the staging of a rape, one character simply circles another in a sinister, swirling dance, and that’s all that’s needed.
Although it looks a little cramped on the York Theatre stage—it will travel later to the National Art Centre, where it may be able to breathe more easily—the physical production is gorgeous. With fabric, set designer Marshall McMahen creates an enveloping wall that looks like a brooding, torn sky. And Jeff Harrison lights it dramatically.
Children of God is perfectly situated in our current historical moment. There are transcendent elements in this production. Go see it.
CHILDREN OF GOD Book, music and lyrics by Corey Payette. Directed by Corey Payette. An Urban Ink production in collaboration with National Arts Centre English Theatre in association with Raven Theatre, at the York Theatre on Friday, May 19. Continues until June 3.
Call The Cultch box office at 604-251-1363 or visit https://thecultch.com/tickets/