Review: Isitwendam (Native Earth Performing Arts)

In 2008, on behalf of the Canadian government, Stephen Harper gave an apology to the First Nations for the suffering that resulted from the Residential School system. Noble enough in its supposed intentions, it represents little more than a placeholder, a tepid acknowledgement of the need for reconciliation—a muddy, fraught concept that Canada is still struggling to wrap its head around.

In the midst of harrowing testimony finally brought to light, we meet the young and eager Brendan—an aspiring politician. He is a half white, half Ojibwe man, desperate to prove himself and get his foot in the door of the Conservative government. Following his hilariously pandering letter of introduction, he is hired by Aboriginal Affairs. His first task? To discredit a Residential School survivor’s reparation claim. And so begins Isitwendam (presented by Native Earth and B2C Theatre), Meegwun Fairbrother’s breathtaking solo performance that both warmed and broke my heart.

Fairbrother has structured his tale with a playful sense of mystery, dropping Brendan into a community of eccentric people who seem to already know him. As he interacts with these quirky characters, brought vividly to life with careful and loving attention, he discovers that his own family history is tied to Canada’s dark past.

The dynamic that exists between Brendan and the local Native people he encounters is rich and intriguing. On the surface, he’s an outsider, but they are aware of his true heritage before he is. Despite their distrust of the Conservative agenda he represents, there is an underlying trust that he’ll somehow own and honour his history. To do this, Brendan must accept and assimilate many painful truths in his journey of discovery. 

With masterful use of Residential School survivor testimony, Fairbrother provides us with a harrowing chorus of voices offering their pain from within those horrific dark corners of our country’s history. A final confession, the one that ties him irrevocably to this trauma, is devastating and deeply haunting.

Fairbrother is a commanding and persuasive performer. With versatile body language, he projects the essence of each character with efficiency, grace and humour. Most impressive is the nuance and visceral integrity given to Brendan’s growth. Early on, he exudes a cocky exuberance that gives him a determined yet vacant air. His transformation to the sombre yet vibrant and purposeful man we see at the end is truly inspiring. 

Under Jack Grinhaus’ astute direction, the poetry of Meegwun Fairbrother’s script and the honesty of his performance are properly nurtured and refined. All aspects of the production are so finely tuned that they feel organic despite the intricate technical demands. Particularly impressive are the projections, suggesting a wide range of environments—from a common hotel room to floating embers dancing through stars—that have been integrated with astounding precision and striking beauty.

This is a warm and intensely empathetic work that blends western and Indigenous storytelling. I can understand that the process of healing is long and painful. In the face of it, Isitwendam feels genuinely insightful and empowering—a gift.

Details:

  • Isitwendam runs until March 31, 2019 at Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas Street East)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00pm, matinees Sundays at 2:00pm and a PWYC show on Tuesday March 26 at 11:00am.
  • Tickets are $15 to $30
  • Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office, by phone 416-531-1402 or online. 

Photo of Meegwun Fairbrother by Joe Bucci