Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
The word “bug” is rife with connotations that traverse the wide space from insect to annoyance. When it premieres at Toronto’s Luminato Festival this week, Yolanda Bonnell’s solo show of this name explores the many facets of this humble word, with all its implications of pestilence, pestering, invasion, and unwitting resilience.
The show is physical theatre which combines poetry, prose, movement and song to tell the story of The Girl, who is taken from her alcoholic Mother. As The Girl moves through the foster care system, she develops an addictive personality that seizes on whatever gives her a feeling of power or love. As The Girl grows, so do her addictions, which manifest as Manidoons – the Ojibwe word for bug, insect or worm.
bug began as a school project in Ms Bonnell’s final year in Humber College’s Theatre Performance program. More specifically, “it was really inspired by this bug I saw crawling across the sidewalk,” explains Ms Bonnell. “It was just trying to get to the other side, and I just understood that struggle deeply. I wondered if it knew that there was a high potential for it to get stepped on – how much did it understand that danger?” She sat with that thought for a while, contemplating the “correlation between that and the treatment of our Indigenous women.” As a woman of Ojibwe and South Asian descent, Ms Bonnell summoned firsthand experience of how “many times we are looked at like pests – particularly in the community where I’m from, which is Thunder Bay. I thought about the struggle of addiction and the relation of bugs to that feeling.”
Prior to its world premiere at Luminato, she workshopped bug locally at Weesageechak Begins To Dance, SummerWorks, Rhubarb, and this May on unceded Coast Salish territory at UNO Fest and rEvolver Festival. Reflecting on the show’s developmental process, she admits that the piece has had “many, many drafts…different lives”. “We tried a lot of things out in the different festivals and found what worked, what made sense and what didn’t. It was a lot of trial and error, and it needed all of that to get to where it is now. When we brought the development team in, that’s where I feel it really began to take a solid shape.”
Though she is “really happy” with where the piece now, she admits that its premiere has her feeling both “really excited and terribly nervous”. As an actor, this feeling is familiar, though the premiere of her own creation has greatly exacerbated it: “There’s a different anxiety for me around my own pieces. Like I’m being critiqued not only on my acting, but on my writing as well.” That said, the importance of the content and her reasons for telling this story fuel her courage and momentum: “It’s come so far and everyone has worked so hard…it’s time.”
So what, exactly, can audiences expect of bug? She promises it will be “an experience”: “They are with me on the journey. The play also has a blend of poetry and movement in it, which adds to the storytelling. It’s a heightened form of communicating.” When what a character is saying becomes too vulnerable, she moves to metaphor and movement to express what she’s experiencing. “I think more theatre is moving to this form of creation,” enthuses Ms Bonnell, “which is really exciting.”
Her anticipation of the premiere is well-earned, and her vulnerability is personal and sobering. Ms Bonnell has lived what she relates: specifically, the reality and politics of being Indigenous. Their expression on stage, intimately in the round, within close proximity of Ms Bonnell, will make bug raw and compelling while provoking (a necessary) discomfort. “I think our Indigenous youth really feel that embedded trauma more than anyone. When you grow up in a country that has turned its back on you – you, whose ancestors were the first peoples of this land – I think that does some irreparable damage. This is part of the reason suicide rates are so high – their – OUR government can’t even give them safe water to drink or sustainable housing or even a school. How can we look to them and say ‘it’s going to be OK?’, you know?”
Ms Bonnell’s painful past finds a symbolic representation in the creature of Manidoons, which she incorporates into bug as the “manifestation of addiction as it lives inside of us and was created in the cycle of intergenerational trauma. After all the pain and torment and genocide that was (and still is) inflicted upon us from colonization, something changed. We needed a way to numb that deep pain we were feeling from the loss of our children, our culture, our dignity, our homes.” She explains that the Manidoons was born in that place, and stayed. “And with every new cycle of violence and addiction and pain, they grow stronger until we can find ways of silencing them.”
Yet despite these undeniable – and unbearable – truths, she marvels at the “incredible resilience and hope” that she has witnessed among youth and encourages them to harness. “Yes – the trauma that lives inside of us can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms and that makes sense,” she notes. But the larger danger lies in racist reframing of these practices. “White people do it and don’t suffer nearly the amount of stereotypes that Indigenous people do. When white people have addictions – they’re edgy or artsy or ‘white girl wasted’, but for us, we’re drunk Indians. We’re worthless. We should be thrown in a river. So yeah, I understand the addictions and where they come from.” Ms Bonnell hopes to show young people they’re not alone, and that there are other ways of coping. She has herself experienced what channelling pain and trauma into creative outlets can do, and sees a need to effect ways for youth to tell their stories, in their own ways. To encourage this, manidoons collective invited Indigenous youth 16 – 25 of age to participate in a free storytelling workshop led by Ms Bonnell, and facilitated by artists Cole Alvis and Ashley Bomberry. Participants have the opportunity to perform their final 5-minute piece in front of an audience as a prologue to bug at Luminato, if they choose. “We’ll learn so much more from them, and they’ll learn how important their voice is. Art is healing, and that’s why I think it can make change.” Moreover, “if we can help heal our youth, we are healing ourselves, and it’s from that place we can continue to be strong and fight.”
Despite giving voice to the cycle of trauma and addiction, Ms Bonnell does not consider what she is doing to be “revolutionary” because “strong, loud Indigenous women have been making noise for years.” She modestly asserts that she is merely adding her voice to the chorus of that “already loud scream.” But she would like audiences to know about her longtime political activism, rooted in her childhood awareness of countless injustices – personal and otherwise. She is philosophical about the impact: “I think it just gave me a reason to keep going. I fought a lot of battles in my life, and they have done a number on me, so it’s hard for me sometimes to be on the front lines.” Undaunted, she continues to battle, using “creation – theatre, writing” as her weapon of choice: “To tell stories, truths, to provide platforms – to be a voice or to show someone else how they can use theirs. I’m just another warrior in this fight.”
Even at this early stage of her career, her “weapon” is mighty. Her recognitions include receiving the Board of Governor’s Achievement Award on graduation from Humber College, plus acclaim for her breakout performance as Theresa in Factory Theatre’s 2016 production of Judith Thomson’s The Crackwalker, and invitations to participate in the Stratford Indigenous Director’s Initiative. As bug readies to open, Ms Bonnell turns her mind to the diverse audience. She hopes that her Indigenous audiences will find some relatability or representation: “I know that a lot of our people suffer from many of the themes discussed in the play, and it’s important for us to feel seen and heard. I think for me; a part of this piece is me saying ‘I see you. I hear you’, and I hope they feel that.” As for her “settler audiences”? She hopes they leave with a deeper understanding of “our lived experiences as we are caught in this cycle of intergenerational trauma that was perpetuated by colonialism and ongoing colonial behaviours.”
Asked for final thoughts, she is precise in her request that we look for leadership in our women. “Our elders, our healers. The ones with open hearts and warrior spirits. Those women have the answers. And . . . it’s important that men step aside, and let our sisters speak. We have LOTS to say.”
So clearly, Ms Bonnell has lots to say with bug . . . and indigenous and settler audiences need not feel like silent flies on the wall. We have lots to talk about: bug involves us all.
News You Can Use
What: bug (World Premiere), created and performed by Yolanda Bonnell; produced by manidoons collective in association with Luminato
Audience Advisory: Coarse language, adult themes, discussions of suicide
When: June 20–24, 2018; run time: approximately 70 minutes (no intermission)
* Post-show talk with Yolanda Bonnell following each performance
Where: The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON M6J 3T4
Info and Tickets: LuminatoFestival.com
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya