Theatre Review: ‘Children of God’

Artfully Navigating the Trauma of Residential Schools Through Song and Performance

  • The play “Children of God” is a story about how the residential school system in Canada ripped apart a family. Photo Virginie Ann

It is haunting to watch a tragic story unfold before you while fully knowing its ending.

Children of God is a musical that follows the children of an Oji-Cree family who are taken to a residential school in Northern Ontario. Before the play began, I knew it would carry heavy content and a happy ending was not to be expected.

The background of the stage of the Segal Centre was painted with a dark, mushroom cloud of smoke. At times, it looked ghastly and unforgiving. Paired with the trajectory of the tragic events that drove the story line, it created an ominous atmosphere that held the audience in its grip.

The twisted legacy of federally-run residential schools runs deep in Canadian history. Children were forcibly taken from their homes, and forced to dress, eat and act in a Christian manner while being cut off from their communities and families, under the guise of salvation. The children were forbidden from speaking in their languages and from practicing their cultures. They were taught English (or French) and the church-run institutions had them adopt Canadian values.

The schools were rife with sexual, physical and emotional violence.

The residential school system ran from the late 1800s, until the year 1996. Children of God is but one story picked from the cultural genocide.

The play shifts between the past and present, between the 1950s and 1970s, showing the deep wounds the school cut into the children and exemplifying how it corroded their futures.

Written by Corey Payette who has Oji-Cree heritage, the music incorporates Indigenous songs interwoven with the echoes of familiar broadway shows like “Fun Home” and “Next to Normal.”

The play opens on a lighter note, with six children frolicking about, stealing apples and cunningly avoiding the harsh religious discipline from the school’s instructors.

It is difficult to differentiate the female actors from the male, as they share the same uniformed clothing and all sport short black hair with bangs. Their powerful voices aid us with recognition; each actor has their unique method of enunciation, some childish as they are portraying young children.

The story follows two siblings, Julia and Tommy, to their secret hiding spot. They reminisce about home, still fresh in their memory despite leaving when they were four.

“I remember all of it still,” sings Julia, played by actress Cheyenne Scott. “I can hear those drums beat, I can feel the ground touch my bare feet.” Later in the play, we find out they have been in the school for a decade.

The violent punishment and abuse of their childhood is interwoven with striking scenes of their adulthood.

We are taken to the present day where Tommy, played by Dillan Chiblow, is a man in his forties, getting ready for a job interview. As his mother, Rita played by actress Michelle St. John, adjusts his tie, he ignores her nagging and loudly says, “I don’t want to look like an Indian today, ma!”

Meanwhile, young Tommy tries to send a letter back home in his native tongue, which is an act of rebellion in itself. Coerced to abandon their language, the very act of remembering it becomes a form of resistance.

The children are caught before sending it, and Vincent, Tommy’s friend who is played by actor Jacob MacInnes, takes the blame and is refused food for an entire week.

Over and over the audience is shown the mandate and mantra of the school; to assimilate the children into white-settler culture and “take the Indian out of the child.”

The scenes whip between the past and present as the tension and violence escalates to a tipping point. Friends and family who were forced into the residential school system die violently, one by one, from suicide.

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At this point, there was a thick musk of apprehension in the room. Every hard truth the audience witnessed had piled up; the sexual and physical abuse, cultural genocide, and forced labour.

Throughout the play, statistics are brought to life; an estimated 6,000 children died in residential schools. Children of God enables its audience to not only know but truly understand, witness and viscerally feel the extent of this country’s historical violence toward Indigenous peoples.

A dark history that bleeds into the present. 80,000 survivors still live today, and the impact of residential schools lives on in the form of intergenerational trauma. Children of God is not only a beautiful, evocative experience but an important play all Canadians should bear witness.

There is an awe of the bravery in the air of what the vocalists exhibit. It cannot be easy to breathe deep and omit melodies interwoven with lyrics laced in ancestral trauma and violence.

During the facilitated post show discussion, Chiblow (who plays Tommy) shares that his job becomes easier and manageable when he recalls an elder’s words: “we lived through that, so you don’t have to.”

Children of God not only acknowledges the systematic oppression and deliberate cover-up of residential schools but honours its survivors and their descendants. Handpicking Indigenous actors, incorporating Indigenous song and performance; such practices provide a means for those communities to tell their own stories instead of having their stories told for them, which further helps them turn their pain into medicine.

In a note from the playwright, Payette concludes that “true reconciliation can’t just be Indigenous people who do bear the burden of the work. It needs to be everyone, in every community, investing in this process and continuing the journey forward together.”

Children of God is playing at Segal Centre until Feb 10th. Discounted tickets for students are available.

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