On Blood Mixing and Mixing It Up

kim harvey and billy merasty in
where the blood mixes by kevin loring
 photo by david cooper
Kevin Loring’s play Where The Blood Mixes, which plays at the Factory Theatre until April 18th as part of Factory Theatre’s Festival of New Works Performance Spring, left me contemplating which stories we choose to tell as Canadians and how our customs and traditions inform the way that these stories are told. Where The Blood Mixes is a Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and The Belfry Theatre Revival Production in Association with The Savage Society and has been performed at the 2008 LuminaTO Festival in Toronto, the Magnetic North Festival in Vancouver and it played at the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad.
The play is set where the Fraser and Thompson Rivers meet and centers on a group of Aboriginal characters who are all survivors of the residential school system. According to the Indian Residential School Survivor Society between 1920 and 1984 all able-bodied Aboriginal children were required to attend an industrial boarding school, typically run by the Catholic Church, which essentially sought to “take the Indian out of the Indian,” in what former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Matthew Coon Come called a genocide. The children were frequently beaten, chained and shackled, locked in confined spaces, given inadequate nutrition or variety of meals, and they suffered extreme psychological abuse and constant vilification of their Native culture, language and spirituality. Many children were also sexually abused and it is estimated that as many as a staggering 60% of the students died due to illness, beatings, attempts to escape or suicide within the schools. Loring’s play poignantly characterizes the various effects that this experience had on defining the lives of four Aboriginal individuals.
Floyd is sullen and seems detached from his own life; he has a volatile temper and a caustic resentment toward the world. His wife, Anna, committed suicide when their daughter was a toddler as she was overwrought with depression and overwhelmed at the inability to adequately heal the wounds of isolation and abuse that haunted her relationship with Floyd and the self-destructive ways they both came to understand and interact with the world. In this play Floyd and Anna’s daughter, Christine, who was adopted by Caucasian parents after her mother’s death, returns to where the blood mixes in attempt to find her father, to learn about her heritage and to attempt to build a bridge back to her people.
The acting in this play is wonderfully dynamic. Billy Merasty is stoic, aloof and speaks disjointedly as Floyd which is both alienating and fascinating for the audience. It is interesting to watch how subtlety his stony demeanour melts as he awkwardly begins to forge a connection with his child. Loring knows that there are no simple solutions to the intricate web of shame, pain and deep-rooted emotional and psychological damage that has been inflicted on these characters and thus he must write this story as one of slow progress trying to eventually overcome a sense of stunned stasis. Even with the reunion of a father and a child, the fundamental issues of this story remain unresolved. Kim Harvey is irresistible as Christine, who is as open and sensitive as Floyd is distant. Harvey fills Christine with a beautiful balance between amicable charm and all the tentative respect of a girl who is surrounded by a culture that is unknown to her. Margo Kane plays June, a maternal friend of Floyd who is a recovering alcoholic and Ben Cardinal gives a heart-rending and riveting performance as Mooch, a man so psychologically scarred that he seems to be trapped in the emotional world of a very disturbed young boy.
The theatre is a cathartic space where artists can band together to tell a community’s darkest stories. It is a place where creativity and the combination of voices, perspectives and the powers of the collective can be empowering, enriching and even healing or redemptive. Kevin Loring’s play under the direction of Glynis Leyshon shines light on a period of recent history that is difficult for many to confront and that emphasizes a horrific account of Canadian cruelty that stands in staggering and shameful opposition to the reputation of acceptance, peacefulness and tolerance that Canadians like to present to the world.
According to The Indian Residential School Survivor Society “First Nation communities experience higher rates of violence: physical, domestic abuse (3x higher than mainstream society); sexual abuse: rape, incest, etc. (4-6x higher); lack of family and community cohesion; suicide (6x higher); addictions: drugs, alcohol, food; health problems: diabetes (3x higher), heart disease, obesity; poverty; unemployment; illiteracy; high school dropout (63% do not graduate); and feelings of despair and hopelessness.” These statistics are believed to be the consequences of so many generations being isolated from their families and entirely detached from their indigenous cultures as children along with, of course, the effects of long-term abuse, racism and maltreatment. Where the Blood Mixes humanizes these numbers and draws a clear connection between the lifestyle of these three characters and their school. I think Loring could have provided even more details about the atrocities faced by Native children across our country as I think knowledge on this issue by those not personally connected to it is generally vaguer than it should be.
At the same time, this play made me wonder about how we balance telling a story such as this one, a story which needs to be told, and informing Canadians about the horrific recent history that Caucasian Christians subjected our Aboriginal Peoples to without propagating the stereotype that Native Canadians are all uneducated alcoholics embroiled in domestic abuse. I am certain that there are numerous Aboriginal stories being told in the Canadian theatre across the country, ones that represent a number of different perspectives, experiences and voices. It is important that a wide array of these are given the opportunity to be developed and disseminated for wide audiences.
Where the Blood Mixes is an evocative piece of theatre and one that may inspire a plethora of emotional responses in the moment and may trigger intense reflection, deliberation and examination of the issues long after one leaves the theatre.
Where the Blood Mixes plays at Factory Theatre’s Mainspace (125 Bathurst Street) until April 18th, 2010. For more information and to book your tickets please call 416.504.9971 or visit http://www.factorytheatre.ca.

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