Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
An entry in Kateryna Hnat Makuch’s private diary on leaving her native Ukraine during WWII has inspired her granddaughter, actor/ playwright Lianna Makuch, to write a new play, Blood of Our Soil. The award-winning play integrates storytelling with live Ukrainian folk music, and will make its Toronto premiere at Tarragon Theatre Extraspace this week.
The play is a personal story of war and intergenerational trauma. Its title sprang from Makuch’s Baba (Grandmother), who wrote in her diary, “How can our land not but be fertile, when so much blood, both Ukrainian and foreign, has continually seeped into it? It shows that our enemies love our land more than we do, for they fight for it ceaselessly. Will we live to see that moment when our people join ‘the circle of free nations?.” This political observation, written over 70 years ago, remains “chillingly relevant” to Ukraine’s current political climate: “I find myself asking the same question about my ancestral homeland,” Makuch admits. “It is this question that has driven me to write this script.”
Makuch describes Blood of Our Soil as a “mostly true story inspired by truth”. Its plot centres on a secret that Hania’s Baba has long kept. Since moving into the Long-Term Care Centre, she has been restless and agitated. Haunted by her past, she urges Hania to return to their Ukrainian homeland to seek out a missing piece of their family history. Hania’s search for answers brings her to the edge of the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine. Here, she meets people and sees places touched by war, and finally confronts the truths of her Baba’s past.
The story originated as a reflection on the summers Makuch spent with her Ukrainian grandparents while growing up. It developed into her way of understanding the war in Eastern Ukraine: “I have woven the influences of my grandparent’s experiences with verbatim threads of the stories and experiences of the brave and resilient people from present day Ukraine. Their willingness to share their experiences has mobilized our team to ensure that their stories are heard half a world away.” Makuch plays the role of Hania. Inspired by Makuch’s personal feelings and experiences, Hania was created with the hope that even audience members who are unfamiliar with Ukraine’s complex historical and contemporary situations can view the story through her eyes.
In many ways, the Hania character represents Makuch’s feelings toward her culture and her personal history. It is a means to process the distance she has felt as part of the Ukrainian diaspora over the last 5 years, while Ukraine has been at war. Yet despite her similarities to Hania, Makuch maintains that, over time, she has become unlike Hania: “To develop the project, I have had to extensively research aspects of Ukraine’s history and the contemporary conflict. In many ways, Hania is closer to the person I was before I began working on this project.”
In professional terms, the play arose from Makuch’s desire to have a voice in her artistic community and to create “brave new work that inspires change”. The performing arts can be a powerful medium, she contends, “not only to enlighten and influence – but to authentically advocate on behalf of a community”. The arts can also facilitate relationship. While on her first research trip to Ukraine in October 2017, she discovered how being theatre artists helped to open doors. She (along with director Patrick Lundeen and dramaturg Matthew Mackenzie) travelled and interviewed dozens of people within kilometres of the front line. Her initial concern – that the citizens would not take them seriously – was quickly dispelled when the interviewees warmed to them upon learning that that they were actors, not journalists: “I think they felt like they could open up to us in a different way than they could to journalists. People were very eager to have their stories shared in Canada.” A war veteran whom she interviewed saw in her a kindred spirit, asserting that “as theatre artists, we are fighting this fight in the way that we know how – through theatre. That we are like soldiers in our own way.”
Since its 2018 premiere in Edmonton, Blood of Our Soil has resonated with audiences and critics, earning 4 Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award nominations. Makuch hopes that the Toronto production can widen that reach, providing an opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds to “convene, learn, empathize and heal”: “We want to inspire audiences to examine how their own family history and current geopolitics, regardless of an individual’s background, converge to shape our identities.” Theatregoers will also appreciate the real and ongoing human impact of Russian aggression in Ukraine – first in her grandparents’ generation, and once again in her own time: “I want people to recognize themselves in these characters – regular people just like them who have been caught between the crossfire.”
Blood of Our Soil gives voice to people whose lives have been altered by the frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, where current Russian aggression has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions. The power of theatre to “humanize vast, geopolitical situations” can help to shift the focus from statistics, bomb blasts, brutality, and rubble to the local, meaningful “human impact” of war. “The personal is political,” Makuch stresses. And “theatre has the potential to create an empathetic experience that can impact more deeply than a newspaper article or a 20-second spot on a news network.”
While she travelled in Eastern Ukraine, people caught in the current “forgotten war” expressed repeatedly their desire not to be “forgotten” themselves. Blood of Our Soil distils a concentrated and artistic remembrance that guarantees they will be heard, remembered and honoured.
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What: Blood of Our Soil (Toronto premiere) by Lianna Makuch, presented by Pyretic Productions, in association with Punctuate! Theatre; Dramaturgy by Matthew MacKenzie; Production Design by Stephanie Bahniuk, Sound & Projection Design by Nicholas Mayne; Music Direction by Larissa Pohoreski; Directed by Patrick Lundeen
Performed by Oscar Derkx, Maxwell Lebeuf, Lisa Norton, Lianna Makuch, Tanya Pacholok, Larissa Pohoreski
Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older
When: March 6 – 16, 2019; Run Time: 2 hours (including one intermission)
Where: Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto ON
Info and Tickets: tarragontheatre.com
© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine