The Mush Hole by Kaha:wi Dance Theatre opens YPT’s season with a gut-wrenching punch

The Quotable Sayak

The Quotable Sayak

The Quotable Sayak is a critic, contributor and coordinator of social media at Sesaya. Naturally arts-inclined, he is a drama major in a secondary arts program and music student at Sesaya.

Montana Summer, Julianne Blackbird, Raelyn Metcalfe in The Mush Hole at Young People’s Theatre; photo by David Hou

The Mush Hole is an emotionally gripping and unique piece, that is not, in any way, your traditional play. It is a 60-minute dance and multimedia piece about the First Nations residential school experience, as conveyed by its survivors. In addition to choreographing, Santee Smith dances in the piece, along with Jonathan Fisher, Julianne Blackbird, Raelyn Metcalfe, and Montana Summers. The work, which is danced without dialogue, provides great insight into the trauma that First Nations children experienced at Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ontario during their time there – and long after they left. 

It is helpful to understand some background before you see The Mush Hole performed. The Mohawk Institute was Canada’s first residential school. It was operated first by the Anglican Church of Canada, and then by the Government of Canada. The government’s involvement is made chillingly clear by a dehumanizing quotation of John A. Macdonald that is projected onto the stage as audiences enter the auditorium. From 1828 to 1970, the institute operated on 350 acres of farmland as an industrial boarding school for First Nations children from Six Nations, as well as other communities in Ontario and Quebec. It served as a model for other residential schools. 

The residential school system was a part of the Indian Act intended to assimilate First Nations children into the dominant European Christian society. Children were removed from their parents in order to sever their ties to family and traditions. They were kept at school in a constant state of fear and deprivation, all year- round. The show takes its name from the nickname that students gave the school because of the disgusting porridge they were made to eat daily, which was often crawling with maggots. Many survivors have described the inhumane treatment and abuse they suffered at the school, and many of their experiences are depicted in The Mush Hole, including a room in the bowels of the building where students who tried to escape were captured, held and abused.  

Approximately 15,000 First Nations children were sent to the Mohawk Institute, leaving a legacy of trauma that we still don’t fully understand. Smith, who is of the Kahnyen’kehaka Nation, Turtle Clan, Six Nations of the Grand River, created this work from conversations and interviews with survivors. At our post-show Q&A, she explained that she began her work within the former Mohawk Institute building and on its grounds. (The Mohawk Institute was finally closed in 1970, and reopened in 1972 as the Woodland Cultural Centre, a non-profit organization that aims to preserve and promote First Nations culture and heritage.) 

The Mush Hole at Young People’s Theatre; photo by David Hou

Smith collaborated on The Mush Hole with set designer Andy Moro and video designer Ryan Webber. The set and multimedia projections make the audience feel like they are a part of the action with the students and survivors, which creates both empathy and discomfort.

With such a raw show like this, it can seem almost unreviewable. I feel that if someone walked out of this show and said, ‘I loved it’…they might be entirely missing the point. This show is powerful in a way that can’t simply be categorized as “good” or “bad”. Now that is by no means an insult to The Mush Hole, which is thoroughly fascinating, meaningful and challenging, and is worth seeing and talking about. When you come to see it, realize that it will push your emotions and thoughts. It is meant to challenge your sense of what a theatrical piece can be. It isn’t traditional theatre, so your reactions will likely be complex. For example, I noticed a row of women sitting behind us who didn’t clap during the curtain. However, they stayed after and were deeply engaged in the post-show Q&A. It could be that they felt what I described – that they were hit in the gut by this show, and were busy processing the emotions it brought up. 

I believe you are unlikely to walk out of The Mush Hole with a firm opinion on it . . . and you probably shouldn’t. Instead, it should leave you in a lasting place of contemplation, realization and discomfort. To be specific, when you think about dancing, you may visualize in your mind a set of fluid, synchronized, and beautiful movements…but this is not the dancing in The Mush Hole. It is mostly made up of sudden and disjointed movements with forced stops and starts to represent the abuses of the residents and the sufferings of the survivors.

Overall, The Mush Hole is a mixture of images and dancing that doesn’t look “pretty”. Rather, it is sharp and distinct, calling up different emotions through its horrifying episodes. And there is no happy ending to this piece or to the tragedy it represents, because we haven’t done nearly enough to help the First Nations peoples. While it may seem like we’ve made progress because the government likes to talk about Truth and Reconciliation being a priority, but in reality, we haven’t done much. We need to experience, support and share pieces like The Mush Hole, so that we can remember and start to understand Canada’s horrific past, and try to learn from it in order to seek healing.

Because it is a dance work with no dialogue, The Mush Hole is more difficult than a typical young adult show to completely understand. I recommend reading the study guide online, staying for the Q&A at the end of the show, and talking about the show with whoever you went to see it with. Doing these things will help you to decipher this work of art for the powerful piece that it is.

So there’s my take on The Mush Hole. It is a very different kind of work – and one that we ALL need to see in 2019. After its run at YPT, The Mush Hole continues its North American tour. After you see it, I guarantee you will think about it, and you won’t soon forget it.

Julianne Blackbird, Jonathan Fisher, Santee Smith, Raelyn Metcalfe, Montana Summers in The Mush Hole at YPT; photo by David Hou

News You Can Use

What: The Mush Hole (Toronto Premiere) Created, Directed and Produced by Santee Smith | Remount produced by Kaha:wi Dance Theatre | Presented by Young People’s Theatre

Performed by Santee Smith, Jonathan Fisher, Julianne Blackbird, Raelyn Metcalfe, Montana Summers

Who: Audiences 11 years of age and older

When: On stage until October 25, 2019

Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON

Curriculum Connections: 

  • Social Studies – Heritage and Identity
  • First Nations, Metis and Inuit Studies
  • Canadian and World Studies
  • Language Arts and English
  • The Arts: Drama and Dance

Explore and Learn: Study Guide

Info and Tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.org

© Sayak S-G, Sesaya /SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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