Talk about dramatic catharsis. The Belfry Theatre’s remount of Yvette Nolan’s enduring play The Unplugging takes us through the pain of exclusion and the suffering of shunned women, through to survival, remembering and reconnection to community. Filled with music and laughter and ending with a kitchen party musical jam, this unplugging opens up the heart and brings a lump to the throat. But those were tears of joy.
“It is, I guess, a reconciliation play. That’s not what I was thinking when I wrote it. But I’m a half-breed, right?” Yvette Nolan, chatting on Zoom from Stratford, where she’s teaching the young artists of the Birmingham Conservatory, comes across as a thoughtful, generous writer with a buoyant spirit and a sense of wonder about life and other’s lives.
“The source material is an Athabaskan story called “Two Old Women” told by an Alaskan Gwich’in woman,” says Nolan in an interview recorded for the Canadian Theatre Museum.
“It’s an old story — pre-contact, generations ago. Two old women, in a time of need are banished from their community because they are old and grumpy and useless. Instead of dying they must go inside themselves and remember their traditional knowledge and in order to survive.” Learning that the banished elders are thriving and not dead, their band sends an emissary to bring them back home.
As Nolan was adapting the tale for a 21st century context, a series of warnings, from the Toronto blackout of 2003, to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami to the extreme weather events contributed to an apocalyptic vision: a complete collapse of the world’s electrical grid. In the aftermath, two older women, Elena and Bernadette — 60-ish and 50-something respectively — are cast out of a cult-like, post-digital community ruled by the Laird. Director Reneltta Arluk has chosen to cast Bernadette as non-Indigenous, cementing the theme of reconciliation.
The Unplugging plots Elena and Bern’s journey in lunar fashion from Sugar Moon to Bear Moon to Pink Moon, from despair to survival to hope and joy. Elena, who has been forcibly detached from her daughter and grandson, regains her indigeneity, her traditional knowledge. She ponders what was lost when the grid went down: “Think of all the information that disappeared, in a blink. All the things we stopped writing down and putting into books, all the things we stopped teaching our children, all the things we need to know now, like, what is the shelf life of tea.” Elena’s recovery of her indigenous skills and knowledge is done in concert with Bern’s recovery of her female vitality. She acts as a goad to Elena in her lowest moments and finds her inner strength. Along with it, she regains the joy of touch sexual congress with Seamus, the young man who suddenly shows up in the women’s forest sanctuary, an abandoned summer cabin.
Nolan, born in 1961 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where her Irish-born father was teaching in the penitentiary there, moved with her family to Winnipeg when she was six. As a young ballet student in the school of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, she found her calling after seeing the ballet’s adaptation of George Ryga’s 1970 play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.
“It was the first time I recognized that our stories – Indigenous people’s stories – could be told on those big stages. It didn’t matter to me that Rita Joe and Jamie Paul were danced by a Spanish dancer and an Italian. What I learned in that moment was the power of theatre to raise people’s stories, to make my stories visible.”
The playwright, dramaturg, director and educator – a stellar artistic director of Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts company from 2003 to 2011 – admits there’s something of her mum in Elena. Nolan’s Algonquin mother, Helen Thundercloud née Chabot, was born and raised in Kitigan Zibi, a reserve at Maniwaki, north of Ottawa.
“She had no formal education. She was sent to residential school in Spanish, Ontario and then Kenora in the 50’s.” Despite the lack of necessary schooling, Helen could speak three languages: Algonquin French and English. As Yvette, born when her mother was only 17 or 18, sees it, her mother grew up in one patriarchy, married into another and then had to endure the ultimate colonial experience: the harsh racism of pure laine Quebeckers whose references to her as “une sauvage” she all too painfully understood.
Helen Chabot met Yvette’s immigrant father, son of a Sinn Fein fighter, after he’d fled to Canada from a seaside town outside Dublin, refusing to be conscripted into the English army. “He was my mother’s math teacher, ten years older than his student.” They grew together out of a shared sense of colonial oppression. “When she graduated from the residential school, the nuns gave them a little wedding.” But the struggle continued for Kevin Nolan. As he was always trying to find a better job, they moved often and Yvette, elder sister to two younger brothers, witnessed the scorching anti-Indigenous racism of the prairie provinces. But today, Nolan has happily settled in Saskatoon. “I’ve got some really special feelings about Saskatchewan, these days.”
The Belfry’s production of The Unplugging is also a kind of homecoming: the show had its premiere in October 2012 at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. Director Arluk, an Inuvialuk/Dene/Cree raised by her grandparents on a trap line in the Northwest Territories, once put up a production of The Unplugging for her own Akpik Theatre in Whitehorse. This time for the Belfry she went for maximum celebration, bringing in Krystle Pederson, a Cree/Metis actor, singer and songwriter as sound designer. On opening night, Pederson warmed up the audience with a full-throated rendition of “Red River Valley” then took her place on set among the trees, playing musical interludes she composed. Daniela Masellis’s emblematic forest set and lighting enclose the action for what is a very intimate play. All three actors — Lois Anderson as Bern, aaron wells as Seamus and Marsha Knight as Elena – are outstanding in their roles, making the play very physical and dancey. Winnipeg’s Marsha Knight as Elena really anchors this show, embodying a proud, motherly spirit of reconnection and hope for reviving the broken dreams of unity among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Written by Yvette Nolan
Directed by Reneltta Arluk
At the Belfry Theatre, Victoria BC until March 3, 2023
Photos, clockwise, from left: Marsha Knight as Elena, Lois Anderson as Bern, čačumḥi – aaron wells as Seamus; playwright Yvette Nolan. Photo credit: Don Craig