In an instant, everything changes. Electricity fizzles out, networks crumble and the collected knowledge of humanity – stored in digital archives like Wikipedia – vanishes. The world is left in the middle of a cold, dark winter.
In a desperate but misguided attempt to survive, one village casts out their so-called undesirables, starting with women who are too old to bear children. So, Bernadette, played by Yukon’s own Mary Sloan, and Elena, played by Heather Majaury of the Algonquin Nation, retreat into the bush where they must rely on their own knowledge to survive.
This is the post-apocalyptic, not-so-distant-future world of The Unplugging, an award-winning play by Canadian playwright Yvette Nolan. It’s the latest production on offer from the Yukon-based Gwaandak Theatre. Fittingly, one meaning of the word gwaandak is “storyteller” in the Gwich’in language.
The theatre brought nationally acclaimed director Reneltta Arluk to Whitehorse for the production. Arluk, who is Inuvialuit, Cree, and Dene from the Northwest Territories,made her directing debut at the Stratford Festival and on November 1 she stepped into her current role of Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
“At its heart, The Unplugging is about reconciliation and that is a vital conversation for us right now,” Arluk said. “I think Yvette Nolan has written an incredible play that explores relationships and community. As the characters learn who they are, we get some insight into who we are.”
The Unplugging tackles subjects that we might otherwise shy away from, such as aging, feminism, reconciliation, the value of Indigenous knowledge and humanity’s over-dependence on technology, but it also manages to keep its sense of humour. That, coupled with a beautiful “moon box” as part of the set – ingeniously constructed by lighting designer Cimmeron Meyer – works to keep the tone of the play light and hopeful.
That hope for the future is the key to the story, said actor Aaron M. Wells, who is from the Nuu-Chah-Nulth and Tsimpsian First Nations of British Columbia. He plays Seamus, the lone male in the play.
“For me, this show is a call to action,” Wells said. “Not just to the reparations that need to be made through Truth and Reconciliation, but also to the reparations that need to be made between male and female.
“I see it as a call to action to the young men in our country to at least start making those reparations to women. That’s where our power comes from, at least as I have always known it, we all come from our mothers and we have that matrilineal lineage.”
Over the past few weeks, Arluk and the cast have spent long hours in the Old Fire Hall working on scenes. The Unplugging is the first play to come out of Yukon Arts Centre’s new performing arts residency, called @YAC.
Rehearsals for the show have been punctuated by hands-on activities. The cast got first-hand experience in “trudging” while out for a winter hike through deep snow near Miles Canyon. And they were given insight into northern traditional knowledge when a local trapper, Montana Prysnuk, taught them how to craft rabbit snares from wire.
“The beautiful thing about having The Unplugging here in Whitehorse is that a lot of people already have this knowledge and very much live in correlation with the environment,” Arluk said. “It was something I wanted to have the cast and the designers and myself do to build a stronger living experience so we could bring that experience to the stage.”
The Unplugging is co-presented by the Yukon Arts Centre, Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre, Klondike Institute for Arts and Culture, Vuntut Gwitchin Government, First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun and Junction Arts and Music.
Its Yukon run starts at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse with a pay-what-you-decide preview on May 1, followed by four nights of performances from May 2 to 5.
After Whitehorse, the cast and crew hit the road to the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City on May 9, the Community Hall in Old Crow on May 10, the Na-Cho Nyak Dun Government House in Mayo on May 14, and the St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction on May 16.
There will also be matinees for school groups in Whitehorse and Dawson.