Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
An excerpt from Keith Barker’s This Is How We Got Here is now posted on the Native Earth Performing Earth Centre’s website. It’s an intriguing exchange between two sisters about receiving an egg, courtesy of a fox. Barker’s play, which was nominated for the 2018 Governor General Award, blends the mythical with contemporary reality as it follows four people trying to find a way forward in the aftermath of tragedy. Native Earth’s new production is directed by Barker (Algonquin Métis), who is also the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts – and it features an all Indigenous cast: Kristopher Bowman (Haudenosaunee), James Dallas Smith (Anishinaabe), Michaela Washburn (Métis), and Tamara Podemski (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi).
To Podemski, the mythical aspects of the play open up a space where difficult subject matter can be addressed by playing with time and illusion – or disillusion. At the same time, all of the relationships and interactions are natural and realistic. The story centres on a close-knit family – mother, father, aunt, and uncle – who are grappling with the aftermath of a suicide. Podemski plays Liset, who is the younger sister of Lucille (Washburn), the wife of Jim (Dallas Smith) and sister-in-law of Paul (Bowman). The group’s once-close relationship as sisters, best friends, and spouses is deeply strained by their traumatic loss. A year later, they still struggle to repair their relationships with each other and move forward.
Podemski describes Liset as a tough-minded lover of order and control. “She can get heated and might lack patience, but tries really hard to keep her cool. She prides herself on being a good sister and wife and a Catholic.” The first attraction for Podemski was Barker’s writing. She finds the play “very real and current”, and felt immediately “it was pretty clear that Liset was the right role” for her: “I love balancing the hard and soft in her, the push and pull, the inner fury and peace. That is so interesting to me. I really resonated with that struggle.”
At its core, the play is a “family drama”, so audiences can expect “emotional discussions and contemplations that may bring on a tear or two”. And in the end, she assures, it “lifts the spirit, opens the heart, and deepens the desire to connect with each other. And there’s some great humour, too, which balances everything out.” But on the route to that balance, there’s tough subject matter to navigate. “I think we are at a time where the need to talk about mental health is greater than the stigma attached to it.” According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) mental illness is a global crisis that is exacerbated by local barriers. Nationally, 75 percent of children with mental disorders do not have access to specialized treatment services. And aboriginal youth are about five to six times more likely to die by suicide than non-Aboriginal youth. This staggering statistic – given urgent voice by this all-Indigenous production – should resonate keenly with audiences. For the question is heart-breakingly simple: without services and tools to treat mental illness and heal its devastating impacts, how does an individual cope? How does a community cope? Perhaps the serendipitously-timed arrival of an egg-delivering fox is an emblem of nature’s presence and an option for healing? “This play creates a space where these conversations can exist. Not to be solved, necessarily, but to be given a space to live and breathe for 90 minutes, at least.”
The play’s audiences will recognize the award-winning Podemski from her long list of stage and screen credits, including both the original Canadian cast and the Broadway Company of Rent, numerous roles on CBC TV, and Four Sheets to the Wind, for which she received the Special Jury Prize for Acting at the Sundance Film Festival. She is currently at work on the primetime drama Coroner (CBC) and the HBO comedy-thriller Run, both set to air in 2020.
In the wake of the play’s opening, Podemski makes a point to express her gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of this production at Native Earth. For her, the unique part about doing a play at Native Earth is that the work is supported by Indigenous teachings, which creates a guidance system for navigating the emotional journey of the characters: “Especially, when you are working with intense feelings and complex issues, it is so grounding to have our medicines around us and to know that we are in a safe, trauma-informed space. Telling stories here is a very different experience and I feel so blessed to be here.”
News You Can Use
What: This Is How We Got Here, written and directed by Keith Barker | Production Manager: Suzie Balogh | Set Designer: Shannon Lea Doyle | Lighting Designer: Jennifer Lennon | Sound Designer: Christopher Stanton | Costume Designer: Isidra Cruz | Fight Director: Richard Comeau | Stage Manager: Heather Thompson
Cast: Kristopher Bowman (Paul), Tamara Podemski (Liset), James Dallas Smith (Jim), Michaela Washburn (Lucille)
When: On stage until February 16, 2020
Where: Native Earth Performing Arts – Aki Studio, 250-585 Dundas Street East Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: nativeearth.ca
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020