Stories you’ve never heard, brilliantly told

I went Saturday night to The River, a Nakai production, with Michael Greyeyes directing a play written by David Skelton, Judith Rudakoff and Joseph Tisiga.

To be frank, I wasn’t sure if I was interested in what I thought would be a sermon on homelessness. I just didn’t want the guilt.

But local playwright David Skelton co-wrote it, and I’m a huge fan of David and Nakai. So I went.

I was blown away. It wasn’t a sermon. It wasn’t a guilt trip. It was eye-opening, and it was riveting, and it was brilliant.

You take your own chair from a stack out in the hall into the black box studio at the back of the Yukon Arts Centre. We’re told we can put the chair anywhere we want outside of the broken glass circle.

Everyone sits outside that circle, so that you are watching everyone else watch the play too. There’s a lot of intimacy and intensity because of this.

The characters, 13 of them, played by five actors, mostly inhabit the circle, and will turn to address you at times.

They are telling their stories. It’s just a great concept all the way around – to have homeless people tell their own stories, tell each other’s stories.

It’s not a story about homelessness from a third person perspective – or from privilege. It’s a collection of first person stories, merged, tangled together.

The writing is brilliant. The play starts off with an intensity carried by the language. The actors ferociously recite a litany of the stories they’ve heard. “There are stories about…” this man and that man and this woman and this event and this artifact.

It channels Walt Whitman. I almost wanted to see the words. It’s exciting the way it builds. That intensity doesn’t let up. You go from moment to moment bouncing between four or five plots told out of order by actors who alter their voices and bodies to differentiate between their multiple characters.

But it’s not too hard to follow along. Using sand, glass, clothes, sleeping bags, they tell their stories.

The circle of broken glass resembles one of those ancient rituals where people draw a circle around them for divine protection – but I learned that night how vulnerable homeless people are. Not just from the elements.

Their stories are about jail, about relationships, about rape, about exposure, about abduction – by everything in the world. They are completely unprotected. That circle of broken glass keeps out nothing. If it was a divine protection – the broken glass symbolizes that it’s long been broken through.

It’s hard to single out a performance in this piece that was far above the others. It’s a tight ensemble cast and they carry their characters through difficult waters.

I had a hard time not watching Wayne Ward. Vibrating the air, he demands attention.

Falen Johnson plays an alien abductee with such seriousness, you believe her. Barbara Pollard, as a tourist, captures their sometimes curious condescension.

Telly James tells the stories of First Nation people who were vulnerable to the city. Whitehorse’s own Ayma Letang plays three women all vulnerable in different ways – fighting to be respected and loved, falling prey to what wanders into that circle.

This loss of power is a theme that runs through The River. All the characters are subject to a greater force: the city, the law, predators, elements, aliens. There is no protection. The cast is so strong. I too felt carried through these uncertain waters.

The sounds and lights are as much a character as anything else.There are bursts of transistor radio, bursts of light, that keep torturing the characters.

I’m not sure what all of that is – but it works to unnerve the audience, and to hurt the characters. It reminded me of the sounds of car radios in alien abduction movies – that searching for a signal, that pointless run across different stations in vocal white noise.

Layered into the sound are voices, whispering about the homeless. I loved that. Shiverous creepy.

The play loses a bit of tension in the last five-to-ten minutes and I don’t know why. I’m assuming that, since four subplots are resolving simultaneously in calm ways, that we are finally let down from that tense motion, but it feels almost like a deflating.

It took a bit of the empathy I had been feeling all night away as well. But that last five minutes doesn’t cancel out such an amazing theatrical experience. I felt deeply moved, and I have a greater appreciation for the enormous vulnerability of our homeless here in Whitehorse.

This play is so beautifully done, well-written, carefully acted, respectfully performed from real stories collected over the last two years from the homeless. It’s a priceless artifact of archived Yukon stories that you will never hear otherwise, and I know it will have a long life.

I hope it ends up in a textbook so I can teach it. Though set in Whitehorse, it deals with universals, and needs to be seen by everyone in Canada.

I cannot urge you enough to go see this play. Space is limited. Get there early. Or you’ll be left out.

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