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Children of God touches a nerve

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Dillan Chiblow, left, and Cheyenne Scott star in Children of God, which is playing at the Segal Centre until Feb. 10. (Leslie Schachter photo)

Musicals aren’t always happy affairs. Children of God, which is playing at the Segal Centre until Feb. 10, is particularly painful, but it’s also one of the most important and life-changing performances that a Canadian can see.

In Children of God, the suffering of First Nations people at the hands of the residential school system becomes much more stark than it does by simply reading about it in the news. It demonstrates how children, separated both from their parents and their heritage, were damaged by their horrific experiences.

The multi-talented Corey Payette – who is playwright and director, as well as composer and lyricist of the haunting songs – tells the sad story of a young Oji-Cree girl named Julia.

With her sweet-natured brother Tom, she is deposited at a tender age by her unwilling mother, Rita, who fruitlessly camps outside the school gates waiting for news of her children.

Julia psychologically resists the church’s barbarous efforts to “take the Indian out of the child,” and makes frequent attempts to escape from the repeated beatings, starvation, brainwashing and sexual abuse that lead to the play’s pivotal moment.

Cheyenne Scott shines as the tortured heroine, nurturing an inner light fed on memories of the character’s early days of freedom.

Dillan Chiblow is superb as the slightly slow-witted Tom, taking his character from innocent optimism to the angry desperation of adulthood.

Time also flashes forward for the school bully, Wilson (Aaron M. Wells), who regrets making a henchman of his brother Vincent (Jacob MacInnis).

Supporting Julia are her schoolmates Joanna (Michelle Bardach, who also has a cameo as a secretary) and Elizabeth (Kaitlyn Yott). All the students are adults who play youngsters with touching believability.

The adult characters are acted with stellar presence by Sarah Carlé as the conflicted Sister Bernadette and David Keeley in the role of the essentially selfish and morally corrupt Father Christopher.

The actor who wins hearts is Michelle St. John as Rita, with her superb voice emoting the heartbreak of having her children removed from her. It must be remembered that about 50,000 children died in the residential schools that first opened in 1857. 

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Marshall McMahen’s set and costumes are thunderous and grey. The rock and sky serve as reminders of the natural world from which the children were ripped, with the school’s iron bedsteads and confining desks as appropriately jarring contrasts.

The scenery’s only sore points are the incongruous plastic flowers initially sprouting like lines of carrots from a ledge. Thankfully, these assume meaning later on.

Jeff Harrison’s lighting sets the scenes, particularly with his use of gobo templates that turn the painted backdrop of sky into a chapel window or a scene of unspeakable tragedy.

Pianist David Terriault heads the band made up of viola, cello and guitar, for a truly moving accompaniment and score.

The survivors of the residential schools are very much with us. The last of these schools were closed as recently as 1996. This was brought home on opening night by the safe room set up in the lobby for audience members overcome with the grief triggered by the play.

Non-indigenous viewers were also moved so deeply by the play that when actors ascended into the tearful audience at the end, everyone rose as one and held hands across the aisles. It was a spiritual experience that will no doubt be repeated throughout the play’s run.

Healing post-performance discussions are scheduled after each show. A word of advice: if you wish to stay for the talkbacks, a worthwhile endeavour, don’t park indoors at the Y, or you’ll have to move your car before they lock up for the night.