LAWRENCE, Kan. - First Nations playwright, Vera Manuel took the experiences of the women around her to create the play 'Strength of Indian Women.'
Her conversations with her mother were the inspiration as she told the story of sexual and emotional abuse that took place at a Catholic residential school in Canada.
In mid-November the Thunderbird Theatre Group presented the play at Haskell Indian Nations University, followed by a discussion session sponsored by the Women's Resource Center.
The play takes place on a Canadian reserve as family members prepare for the coming of age ceremony for a young woman. The girl's grandmother Sousette, played by Dianne Yeahquo Reyner, is joined by her girlhood friends Lucy (Mia Peck), Mariah (Lorene Brant), Agnes (Michaela Henry) and Sousette's daughter Eva (Autumn McDonald).
The ceremony for Sousette's granddaughter Suzie (April Pleasant) brings the four friends together for the first time in several years. As the play unfolds, the secrets and shame the four women carried with them for so many years are finally spoken out loud.
The performance comes at the same time the United Church of Canada is going back to court to fight lawsuits which allege sexual abuse brought by former students of the church-run school.
Throughout Canada, Residential Schools, similar to church-run boarding schools in the United States, were in charge of educating Indian students. Allegations of abuse have come from both sides of the border.
Although she acknowledged she was sure such abuse did take place, one member of the audience said she remembered her boarding school days as positive. "It was during the Depression. Without the schools, I don't know what would have happened. I'm sure some abuse took place at some of the schools, but I never heard about anything like that."
Many of those in the audience nodded to one another as Eva confronted Sousette. "You stiffen when I try to hug you," Eva says.
For several audience members, the interactions of the six women brought back memories of their own families. The Aunties, Lucy, Agnes and Mariah, were most believable as they discussed their boarding school experiences. The constant tension between Peck and Henry's characters added realism to the tragedy of the boarding school experience.
Henry's portrayal of Agnes, ex-hooker, ex-alcoholic, threatened to steal the show on more than one occasion. Her well-placed "aaays" brought a self-effacing humor to the heart-rending tale unfolding.
The spicy acting of Peck introduced that relative who can only be described as a character to life for those attending the play. Her no-nonsense portrayal of Lucy was like a visit back home, where that strange relative always comes out of the woodpile to tell you what it is that you're doing wrong. Peck's character was strong and forthright as she sat in judgment of what was going on around her.
The painfully shy Mariah was cast perfectly by Brant as she scurried quickly off stage to avoid Lucy. Her conflict between God and her heritage and the complicity of her actions while in boarding school, made her a tragic and pathetic character. By finding her own voice and telling her own tale, Mariah was finally able to exorcise the demons which had held her for so long and begin healing.
Sousette, always the mediator, came alive as the family matriarch. Reyner fine-tuned her performance with hand gestures and movements familiar to every Indian grandchild.
The generation of Eva, Sousette's daughter was the one most profoundly affected by the boarding school experience. Eva's generation was the one which attempts to go back and learn about heritage. For the Evas there was no coming of age ceremony, no tradition. It had been lost when their mothers were sent away from their homes to attend school.
McDonald's wistful expressions and anger over what had she had lost, came across strongly as she finally learned the reasons for her mother's behavior.
Reyner later told the audience she had been in contact with Manuel before the play opened. Manuel was pleased Reyner said the group had taken on the play and said she found it ironic that a play about the abuse of Indian women by Catholic priests was being staged in a former chapel building at Haskell.
The lively post-play discussion allowed the audience to reminisce and to ask questions. Actress Lorene Brant said she hadn't realized until she played Mariah, just how hard it was for light-skinned Indian people. "I never thought about it, but now I see how hard it must be, not to be accepted by either side."
The real strength in the play was not only the fact women were finally able to open up about their boarding school years. It was the hope that Suzie's coming of age ceremony brought. It proved that even through suffering and abuse, tradition and strength of character survive and are passed on. What had once been lost had been regained for another generation.