Justice: Great Play, Difficult Concept

Haines Junction was honoured with Gwaandak Theatre’s production of Justice on the evening of Tuesday, October 2.

Playwright Leonard Linklater’s latest offering captures the juxtaposition of two far-removed cultures and their respective justice systems. Based on the history of Yukon’s first hangings in 1898, this tragic re-enactment of the Nantuck brothers’ murder trial is very moving. It’s a story underlining the lack of understanding between cultures and the devastating consequences of miscommunication.

The impetus for the play came to Leonard Linklater upon discovering a legal journal article outlining the case of the Nantuck brothers, from Tagish. Further research drove him to tell a larger story that needed to be voiced, one that spoke to the poor representation of First Nation peoples in the new judicial system, and the tumultuous changes in society occurring in the Yukon during the late 1800s.

The first thing that strikes the audience is the simple set of the stage. There is wonderful use of light and shadow to illustrate the many layers in the telling of this historical tale. It also serves to contrast the simplicity of a landscape and the complexity of human interaction. Tagish and T’lingit music flows throughout the performance, supporting dance and transitions with an atmosphere of timelessness.

All actors do fine jobs performing double duty, and the stage direction is flawless. Rob Hunter, as “Little Dreamer” Frank Nantuk, and Corey Payette, as the elder brother, Jim Nantuk, deliver beautiful portrayals of Tagish culture and the confusion that surrounded their arrest and internment.

Phillip Nugent, as their attorney, F.C. Lisle, struggles through an ill-equipped interpreter to support his hunch that there was more to the story than a simple shooting for supplies. Nugent’s portrayal of the surviving miner allows the audience to see into the existing prejudices many people carried towards First Nations people as they arrived in the North.

Chris McGregor as William Meehan, the miner who was killed, and then as the Justice who condemned the Nantucks, was wonderfully flexible in both roles, with a fine performance as the indomitable Judge Thomas McGuire, concerned more with reputation than ensuring a fair trial.

The innocence of a gentle people, the desire to be respected, and the drive to “do the right thing,” all serve as strong motivators for the players in this story. This is not only an inquiry into a historical event, it also causes reflection on the current struggles First Nations people have with the present judicial system.

Linklater’s play challenges us to ask hard questions: has the relationship between First Nations and the current judicial system changed? Does it serve people of different cultures equally well? Justice leaves us to consider these questions and challenges us to continue the conversation towards a common understanding.

Justice will be playing in Whitehorse at the Yukon Arts Centre, October 10-13 at 8:00 p.m.

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