Reviewed by James Karas
1939 is the penultimate opening of a production at this season’s Stratford Festival. You may have thought that 1939 obviously refers to the beginning of World War II and draws parallels between dictators invading innocent countries then and now.
In 1939 King George V and Queen Elizabeth visited Canada and the royal visit has some importance in the play by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlin Riordan. But the play has a much darker and far more important purpose. It pays homage to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Canada’s Residential Schools and the Stratford Festival and by extension the rest of us bow our heads in shame at a national policy that forced children of indigenous Canadians to attend “schools” where the expressed purpose was “to kill the Indian in them” and civilize them.
1939 takes place in a Residential School somewhere in northern Canada. We meet five students, Joseph Summers (Richard Comeau) and his sister Beth (Tara Sky), Evelyn Rice (Wahsonti:io), Susan Blackbird (Kathleen MacLean) and Jean Delorme (John Wamslay). Sian Ap Dafydd (Sarah Dodd) is their teacher and Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara) is the school’s minister and hockey coach.
That is the basic plot of the play text but there is a far darker subtext. The children live under severe restriction and they are not permitted to leave the school. They use their native language sparingly and with fear, and some of them have limited memories of it. The school that is supposed to civilize them does not even have a library. The text of the All’s Well That Ends Well that they are to put on is provided by the teacher from her own selection and by the minister.
To the great credit of Lauzon and Riordan this is not a heavy-handed and melodramatic portrait of a residential school. There is a great deal of humour and at one point there is a farcical scene but the message is always there.
Amid the comic attempts to pronounce Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters (pretend you are walking like a horse) and the children’s resilience, they write messages on the large blackboards on the stage expressing their longing and their pain. Everything that they write is quickly erased.
The play is episodic with a large number of short scenes some of them lasting less than a minute. But we get the messages. The students become the “actors” in the play and have to dress like “Indians”. Their costumes are made by white women and they express the ideas of the white community about what indigenous people wear. The children complain about the idiocy of the costumes but they have no say.
The school’s hockey team coached by Father Williams wins the championship but the white losers accuse them of cheating. Mrs Macbeth publishes the complaint in her newspaper and there are massive cancellations of tickets for the performance. The players “have to eat crow” and give the trophy to the “winners.”
The actors playing the five students have indigenous roots and they seem to be men and women in their twenties. The students are smart and within the limits of the residential school regime, self-assertive. There are indications of physical abuse and no one can doubt the psychological harm. The actors are all trained but seem to have limited acting experience. In the beginning they appeared awkward and unsure of themselves but they got into the grove and they performed very well in the second half.
Miss Dafydd, a teacher of Welsh extraction, has first-hand experience about being uprooted and forbidden to speak her native language. She lived through that in Wales. Saah Dodd gives a stellar performance in the role showing a woman who is caught in a situation and job that we can never know if she is under as much duress as her students or believes in it wholeheartedly.
Mike Shara’s Father Williams is a minister without a parish who had to try three times to be ordained. He is hoping that the archbishop who will attend the performance will give him a parish. Shara provides much of the laughter in the play. The journalist Madge Macbeth, dressed stylishly and representing a big newspaper, was impressive in the hands of Jacklyn Francis.
The set by Joanna Yu consisted of three large blackboards and a few chairs that are used for various purposes.
The direction by co-author Lauzon is brisk and gets the numerous scene sequences done without a hitch. There is considerable laughter in the play and the scene around the performance of All’s Well rises to hilarious farce.
The play and the message are timely. There can be few Canadians who do not know about the tragedy of the residential schools. Canada’s crime against humanity will never be expiated.
1939 by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlin Riordan opened on September 11 and continues until October 29, 2022, at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street East, Stratford. Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca
James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press