Yolanda Bonnell’s solo show bug opens with her singing a simple chant that could be a dirge or an invocation. She sings about the eternal life-supporting substances of water and land. She is reaching for an all-inclusive spiritual connection.
The performance moves on a number of levels. Ms Bonnell is listed as the creator and performer of the work and not strictly speaking as the writer. She is Ojibwe-South Asian in a ritual and spiritual journey that goes from the many and mostly tragic lives of oppressed Indigenous women to searching for a connection with the stories and culture of the Indigenous people and bring them forth in the theatre.
On the realistic level, she relates stories of an Indigenous woman or many women growing up and becoming involved in smoking, drugs, addiction, sexual awareness and promiscuity. There are descriptions of unalloyed happiness with her little daughter and wrenching descriptions of her being taken away from her.
The lives of Indigenous women are a running theme throughout the performance and they go from the most tender like the touch of the skin of a child (a rare occurrence) to the ugliest and most devastating. Bonnell represents many women but they are not differentiated. She encompasses all indigenous women universally.
Yolanda Bonnell in bug
Another recurring theme is the spiritual level which is more difficult to comprehend. The spiritual aspect of life is represented by the bugs of the title. There are many references to bugs from fireflies, to flies, to vicious bees covering her body.
She walks around the stage, raises her hands in invocation, falls on the ground and engages in physical activity throughout her performance. This is not realistic theatre but a series of rituals that encompass the real and the spiritual world as a continuum or amalgam. There is a complexity to the performance that is not easy to decipher in a single viewing.
The production is done in an intimate theatre-in-the round set in the small Theatre Passe Muraille with fewer than a hundred people in the audience. Cole Alvis directs and Michel Charbonneau provides dramatic lighting.
Ms Bonnell’s women are infused with the poison of colonialism and she wants to do much more than illustrate her views in bug. She is determined to decolonize theatre and dismantle its colonial structure. She wants to find other ways that theatre can exist.
She describes her mission in a note in the programme titled On Decolonizing Theatre. She finds partners in Indigenous artists, especially women and artists of colour who want, in her words, “to bring deep Indigenous teachings back to our ways of storytelling.” It is something of which many (most?) of us would readily admit ignorance. If there is an Indigenous way of storytelling, it would be embraced and lauded by everyone and not just Indigenous people and people of colour.
She admits that she does not have all the answers, time, patience and a lot of work will be required to effect a fundamental shift in thinking. Bonnell has indeed a bold and revolutionary concept.
The Western literary and dramatic canon has been involved in story telling for a long time and not always within a colonial structure. Ancient Greek tragedy was born out of the dithyramb, a hymn to Dionysus, the god of wine abd fertility. Thespis, the first actor known to history, appeared on stage and told stories about the gods and myths. Drama itself originated largely from people’s spiritual beliefs. Greek tragedy in its story-telling always had liturgical and ritual aspects. In other words, the Ancient Greeks had found a way of telling their stories.
Is Ms Bonnell striving for the same idea for Indigenous people? The character or many characters in bug are they not reaching from the depths of desperation and alienation for spiritual contact with what they have lost? Is Ms Bonnell moving forward, however haltingly, back to the beginning and what happened two and a half thousand years ago on the foothills of the Acropolis?
bug created and performed by Yolanda Bonnell in a production by manidoons collective, co-produced by Theatre Passe Muraille and Native Earth Performing Arts continues until February 22, 2020 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, Ontario.
James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press