On June 11, 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons to issue a formal apology for Canada’s century-long Indian residential school policy.
That same Wednesday evening, a new play called Where the Blood Mixes burst upon the Canadian theatre scene at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Vancouver, B.C.
The two events had a profound connection.
The painful and lasting legacy of the residential schools lies at the heart of Kevin Loring’s play, which has since gone on to win both a prestigious Jessie Richardson Theatre Award and the Governor General’s Award for drama.
Next week it comes to Whitehorse in two staged readings co-produced by Gwaandak Theatre and Loring’s Vancouver-based company, The Savage Society.
The play’s title derives from the Interior Salish name for the historic N’laka’pmux First Nation village of Kumsheen (now Lytton), at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers, where Loring grew up.
It translates literally as “the place in the heart where the blood mixes”.
Loring, who is also an actor and director, initially conceived the play as a one-man show called The Ballad of Floyd, centred around a character named Crumb.
“I could have continued to do it as a one-man show. It would be a lot easier to pitch a show to producers that only requires one guy, and it was always an option to do that,” he says.
“But early on, I made the decision I wanted to write this for other actors. I was excited about seeing other actors do the play. It was a choice.”
So other characters joined the equation, based on people and situations Loring had observed in his hometown.
“And Crumb became Mooch, with much more of a story and much more humanity in him. It was fun.”
The opening scene finds Floyd and Mooch drinking in a bar, as they do every night.
Loring readily admits it’s a stereotype, but he doesn’t shy away from the stereotypical.
“I run head-first directly towards it. The opening scene in the play is these drunk Indians in a bar. It’s funny, and it’s raunchy, they’re making raunchy jokes at each other,” he says.
“So I present that stereotype right off the top, and throughout the play start to peel back the onionskin layers of it to get to the source of why these guys are there every night.
“Peeling it back, peeling it back, peeling it back, so it has meaning beyond just the token Indians in a bar. So we get the humanity of them, the humanity of their condition, to the people in them.”
Loring credits actor Gary Farmer with triggering some of his insights into the play’s development, during a workshop in Toronto.
At the end of the session, when the director asked if the actors had any comments for the playwright, Farmer slammed the script down and said, “Twenty-five years in the industry and I’m still playing drunk Indians in the bar. So what? So what’s next?”
Loring considers that a “very good” moment.
“It helped me rethink the play so it could become what it is,” he says.
“I don’t think the comment was meant to be discouraging. I think he was just challenging me to dig deeper, and I heard that, so that’s what I did.”
The result is a multi-layered play about death and rebirth, the power of storytelling, denial and ultimate courage, truth and reconciliation.
In Floyd’s case, reconciliation comes through the return of a daughter, Christine, given up for adoption years ago.
It is also a play rich in river symbolism—the blood-red salmon runs, the bears that feed on them and the “Old Man” sturgeon who lives at the bottom of the river.
Loring, who recently played Edmond in an all-First Nations production of King Lear at the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa, is no stranger to large venues or capacity audiences.
A national tour of Where the Blood Mixes filled houses across Canada, and included performances at the NAC and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
But Loring will never forget the staged reading of an earlier draft in his hometown, with just the bare bones of a set.
“I’ve never been as nervous as I was that day, staging that show in my community. You know, it was about them. But they came, they loved it, they laughed, they cried, they were screaming and hollering at it, they thought it was amazing. We had a great day.”
Gwaandak Theatre’s co-founder and managing artistic director, Patti Flather, saw the play the week it opened in Vancouver in 2008.
“It was such a moving piece, and so powerful for it to be premiering right at the time of the federal apology. I knew this was a piece that would really resonate in the Yukon, too.”
The Whitehorse readings, in conjunction with the Adäka Cultural Festival, will feature four of the five original actors—Billy Merasty (Floyd), Margo Kane (June), Quelemia Sparrow (Christine) and Tom McBeath (George)—with Sam Bob as Mooch.
Blues musician Jason Burnstick will also perform music from the score he composed for the original production.
Where the Blood Mixes runs Tuesday, June 26 and Thursday, June 28 at the Old Fire Hall, beginning at 8 p.m. Admission is by donation.