Intersecting silences

3 November 2020

by Cedric Thompson

Perimeter Airways terminal in Winnipeg is a dingy den with mostly stoop-shouldered elders and unfettered children enjoying last-minute sprints amongst the waiting passengers before they are tethered to tiny seats on the bush planes heading into the northern wilderness. Hydro and other construction workers, doctors, nurses (almost always white, with a sprinkling of immigrants of colour like myself) are also crowded confidently around faux leather settees that are too low for anyone’s comfort. In fact they seem to be deliberately designed to keep people off. Interspersed baggage betrays the contents, for they are mostly cooler boxes, packed with all sorts of treats that are either not to be found or prohibitively expensive on the reserves.1 The air is heavy from rancid frying fat. Breaded chicken, french fries and pizza are the only fare on offer and the drinks are disturbingly sweet, artificially coloured and flavoured. No healthy food options here, quite unlike the international terminal that lies only a few hundred metres away. This is not the Canada of glossy brochures and slick ads.

Mostly Filipina workers attend the check-in counter and other airline workers jostle for attention in moderately socially distanced and masked huddles, their chit-chatting interspersed by occasional outbursts of laughter and snickering. The check-in hall is a bustling place. The security guards are both turbaned Sikhs. I make light conversation with both of them and they are thrilled to discover that I have visited Chandigarh, the capital of their Punjab state. They tell me they love their new country and, after a mere 18 months, they have found gainful employment and have begun to carve out a niche for themselves. One of them shows me pictures of what he looks like without his turban and the other tells me how his mother cried when he cut his hair for the very first time; he wanted to assimilate faster and decided to opt for a western-style coif. Both have a confident presence that says, without words, we have a place in this country. The nine people checking in don’t appear to have the same confidence and they slink (with trepidation?) through the security check.

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When we board the 12-seat plane I know within seconds that I am heading into unfamiliar territory. I know this when we land in Sioux Lookout where I need to change flights and signage appears in Oji-cree2 syllabics. It looks and feels foreign to me in this very land I now call home. Here, the waiting room has even more nurses and doctors and workers taking connecting flights to the north. Some passengers scramble to pick up a deep-fried chicken leg, a muffin or some chicken noodle soup as last-minute nosh. We take off and the landscape is nothing short of spectacular. Gnarled, silvery fingers of mostly pristine waters traverse the endless boreal forests, occasionally collecting in shallow basins, forming lakes too numerous to track. (Sadly, some have been polluted by heavy industry and mining, ruining life and livelihood.) The plane stutters through the low-lying clouds and before long we descend onto the gravel runway of my distant community, accessible only by air. The terminal building is but a shack, chicken wire separating the baggage handlers from passengers awaiting an assortment of backpacks, cases, boxes and shopping bags brimming with city goods. I am relieved to spy my distinctive German crates that look ostentatious in this ad-hoc departure-arrivals-customs shack. But before the bags, there are crates of chips, soft drinks, a large box of doughnuts and brown pizza boxes tied up with string.

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I am more than two weeks late for my new post, having been recruited at the last-minute from my job at the Leipzig International School in Germany. Grease, The Musical is still ringing in my ears. It was my last large-scale production. My possessions have all been distilled into five industrial totes and some things – like my trestle masks, my favourite Lucaffe coffee beans and my go-to Khmeli Suneli Georgian spice – have a guaranteed place. I have one day to get my act together, pay for and connect my WiFi, and grab a few groceries at the only very pricey store aptly called The Northern. It’s like being in cottage country for an extended time. And school, as always, has that universal smell of a school.

The students eye me up and down. I do what comes naturally after thirty odd years of teaching. Any anxiety I may have is professionally masked and before long I am setting order to chaos. The drama students have handouts about the purpose of drama and the benefits gained from honing theatrical skills. They have sketchy notes of outcomes and evaluation and assessment criteria but they have not, up to this point, done anything remotely theatrical.

I have my work cut out for me. I pull out all the stops. Tables and chairs are cleared away and the large floor space is our playground for the next 90 minutes. I am dressed in my theatrical black, my belly safely sucked away, with an arsenal of warm-up exercises and games that Leanne Fulcher – a Canadian working in Singapore – handed out at an ISTA festival in Vienna years prior. The students are probably wondering what blue pill I have swallowed as they are cajoled into lunging and jumping and incited into yelling and fighting each other with imaginary Samurai swords, the music pounding until they literally drop to the floor for the cool-down. They go down without hesitation. It isn’t the cleanest and it certainly isn’t inviting. But down they go. And as I walk them through a meditative cool-down, I catch my breath and silently give thanks that the first drama lesson is a sweaty success.

I invite the gathered circle to turn to the right and instruct them to pat their neighbour on the back and say: ‘Great job’. Then turn to the left. And you know the rest of the routine. They have been given permission to touch, so there are giggles, squirms and hysterical outbursts. But it all gives way to decorum and they leave the classroom with a look that says: ‘He’s crazy!’.

Crazy enough to invite ideas from them so we can devise our first piece, Every Child Matters. Orange Shirt Day3 (commemorated on 30th September) has arrived without much warning and I don’t want to miss an opportunity to theatrically explore the trauma that indigenous communities suffered when their children were forcibly removed to attend residential schools4. We brainstorm ideas, looking through a selection of texts and graphic novels that I notice on the bookshelves. I seek out some paintings of bad-boi Cree artist Kent Monkman and before long we are on a dramatic journey. This time, my inspiration comes from Augusto Boal and his principles of Image Theatre along with my practical experience from a teachers’ workshop directed by Mike Pasternak at an ISTA festival at the Terezin concentration camp in the Czech Republic. We too are going to use our bodies to create evocative living images.

     

Thus is born a powerful five-minute homage to the victims of residential schools in Canada. Not a word is spoken. Drumming, dancing and movement entrance the deliberately tiny audience invited to attend; my students are not ready for a public performance. With the classroom windows covered in black construction paper and an addition of primitive lighting and sound, we have created our safe little black box. Safe. Because no words are expected.

But what comes next leaves me faltering. My cockiness fades really fast. I want my students to use words, language. Still effervescent with performance success and a new-found enthusiasm and confidence it seems like a no-brainer.

I purchase a 15-minute version of Persephone from a small publisher in the United States, sure that it will be a hit. After casting, we get down to creating masks. The students are focused and their attention to detail is inspiring. The first reading should provide a hint of things to come. Their voices have vanished. A 90-minute class is not enough time to read through a 15-minute script. Simple decoding eludes them. Basic words get stuck in hesitant throats. It is painful. I felt like burying Persephone deep in the ground, far from anybody’s reach. As the students falter through the script – the storyline completely lost – I feel compelled to break the tension and throw in a few theatre games and improvisational exercises about helicopter parents and teen romance, trying to put a juicy spin on the story of Persephone and her mother’s disapproval of her beau; a universal mother! I can’t leave them feeling deflated. We struggle. I struggle. I struggled even more when I realise that there is a gender factor exacerbating the silence.

As the boys grow in confidence, the girls wither into pitiful squirming silence. A worrying, painful silence. I think of abandoning the script altogether, of devising something of our own. But the boys are growing into the script and quickly memorise their lines. All the major female roles are voluntarily picked up by boys. Persephone’s visible moustache adds a whimsical charm to the production.

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The final production. The chorus of forest nymphs, despite their masks, fail to find their voices, and slink into the depths of the forest against and into the back wall of the classroom. They have totally forgotten the art of dramatic choral storytelling. The main characters (all boys) are visibly exasperated as the chorus lines (all girls) are botched and butchered and Persephone (the show) is a devastating failure, relegated to the underground for good. With no hope of rising in the spring. In all my years I haven’t ever witnessed a production where I am speechless from despair. My words of encouragement for those who persevered fall flat both to me and the brave actors. What the heck has gone wrong?

Two girls missed the final performance; they were medevaced (evacuated by plane to a medical facility) to Sioux Lookout on a suicide watch. Apollo, enthusiasm for his role notwithstanding, had to be played by another character, because he had to leave the school prematurely to attend a new school in Thunder Bay.

I go inwards. I take to self reflection. Their silence and the lost voices disturbs me.

It isn’t easy to voice emotions, I know this first hand. As a closeted gay man raised in the Roman Catholic faith tradition I know silence and shame first-hand and paid a considerable emotional price for hiding; I felt disconnected. I lived in constant fear that I would be jeered and disdained (and that fear still lingers).

As a South African-born person of colour through mixed racial heritage, I lived through the apartheid years of being voiceless, denied the vote. I know the pain and hopelessness that comes from a feeling of rejection, of not belonging.

My mother is fast slipping into a silent world of dementia and Alzheimer’s. No amount of coaxing or professional training can tap into her silence. During recent visits, I had to face the challenge of communicating my love and care without too many words. She tires quickly from too many words.

At the same time, our world is breaking out of silence. Voices of the less privileged are outing the privileged. Those rendered powerless, are standing up to the powerful. The mighty are being toppled from their thrones of privilege and systemic discrepancies are being ferreted out and exposed for public flogging. The venerable Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are being chastised for their stance towards missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.5 Canadians are becoming aware of the exploited migrant workers we depend on to keep our fruit and vegetables affordable, at the cost of dispensable lives. And only mere weeks ago (June 2020), the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg was taken to task for violations of its very raison d’etre; First Nations workers and LGBTQ2S workers challenged the management for racist and homophobic practices.

While the grim death of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer in United States of America incited a worldwide protest in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, here in Canada we were shame-faced witnesses to a video recording of Chief Adam Allan of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation being violently beaten into submission and silence by a police officer of the country’s esteemed RCMP.

As I continue my work amongst Indigenous students, I take refuge in the work of Boal, and his theatre of the oppressed. Some of my students have slipped into (systemic) silence. Indigenous people claim that it takes a daunting seven generations to heal wounds of the past. The students I teach are only four generations away from the colonial atrocities that silenced their ancestors. A colleague reminds me to consider the damage and trauma of the past that now rears its ugly head in the plague called lateral violence. This is that awful social disease from which many oppressed communities suffer; they refuse to acknowledge the success and achievements within a group. Venezuelans, who are no strangers to hardship, have an expression in Spanish which says that no-one wants to see sweet eyes on someone else’s face. Putting others down is routine and finding the negative in the achievements of a peer comes much easier than praise in repressed communities.

As the theatre course draws to a close, I offer the poem of a woman from the Mi’Kmaq First Nation in Nova Scotia. Rita Joe’s poem I Lost My Talk is meant to be the culminating assessment piece. Students are allowed to record the poem (in private, if needs be) and we layer it over a video recording using Trestle masks. Perhaps we will broadcast the best on the local radio. We meet moderate success. The voices are still somewhat tentative, perhaps meek, but Rita Joe’s text seems to resonate.

I lost my talk
The talk you took away
When I was a little girl
In Shubenacadie School
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.

Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.

So gently I offer my hand and ask
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.

The teacher in me feels caught in a vortex of intersecting silences: student silence, community silence, my mother’s newly inflicted silence and my own silence.

Indigenous people the world over have been silenced for generations. Residential schools in Canada were designed to eradicate their culture and language, and students were forbidden to speak their native tongue. As the children were forced to attend distant boarding schools, their screams were drowned out by the engines of sea planes, the sounds of lashings and the pleas of elders and parents went unheeded. When a community has been systematically and systemically silenced, it should come as no surprise that indigenous children have lost their voices.

Kent Monkman’s paintings of the brutality of colonialism and its effects on indigenous people are not just provocative; they are loud, sensual, visual protests which speak for the speechless and give voice to the voiceless. Monkman says he deliberately paints gigantic canvases so they can never be hidden. I desire such courage. I, too, want to imbue my silenced students with a voice. But I want voices that are authentic and unique. I want to keep in mind that some voices are loud, while others are soft and timid. Some will be confident, others less so. A few might be brash, like trumpets, raucous and strident, summoning, announcing and declaratory, while others will whisper like harps, mellow and lulling. Some will be dumb-struck into silence. I am reminded from my studies in music in the early 80s that silence is a poignant and indispensable principle in music composition. Now I realise its indispensability in the drama class.

I need to keep in mind that many of my students live through nightly chaos in their homes. Drunken revelry keeps many a child awake at night and by the time they get to school the next morning, they are ready for silence. Ready to crawl into a corner. Ready to put their heads into their arms and catch a few well-deserved winks they might have been denied the night before. The classroom, ironically, might be the quietest place in their day. The damage inflicted by opioid addiction and other substance abuse on First Nation, Metis and Inuit reserves is no secret. It is one of our collective national shames. And it has a huge impact in the classroom.

I want to remain steadfast in my mission as a teacher of theatre, holding fast to my objective of empowering my students to create Image Theatre pieces that impact social change. Ensemble warm-up will continue to strengthen flexibility in imagination, concentration, physical freedom and group trust. In this way, I dream that the real goal of the Theatre of the Oppressed will be accomplished: to contribute to the preparation of the future rather than waiting for the future to happen. I want my students to know and believe that they belong to this, their native land. I want them to have the confidence of the newly arrived turbaned Sikh who has been welcomed and already feels at home.

I am willing to acknowledge the sins of the past and the burdens carried by many of my students. And am I ready to find a place of honour for silence with its paradoxically powerful voice.


Cedric Thompson lives and works in a remote fly-in First Nations community in Northern Ontario, Canada. He was born in South Africa and emigrated to Canada in 1984. He studied Speech and Drama, Music as well as English literature at the University of Durban-Westville in South Africa and later completed the Integrated Arts Programme at York University in Toronto, Canada. He has taught in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Canada, Turkey, Ukraine, Uganda and Germany. He has been affiliated with ISTA since 2000 and has taken hundreds of students to festivals over the course of his years while teaching in Europe.

Do you have an inspiring story to share? Email keriann@ista.co.uk


1. An Indian reserve is a tract of land set aside under Canadian Indian Act and treaty agreements for the exclusive use of an Indian band (First Nations). Band members possess the right to live on reserve lands that are held by the Crown and band administrative and political structures are often located there. Source: https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/reserves/
2. Oji-Cree is a dialect of Anishinaabe mainly located in Northern Ontario or Island Lake, Manitoba in Canada. Source: www.cbc.ca/originalvoices/language/oji-cree/
3. Orange Shirt Day events were designed to commemorate the Canadian residential school experience, to witness and honour the healing journey of the survivors and their families and to commit to the ongoing process of reconciliation. Source: www.orangeshirtday.org/
4. Residential schools were federally funded, church-run industrial boarding schools organised by a Canadian government policy of aggressive assimilation of First Nations peoples. 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the schools. Residential schools operated across Canada between the 1870s and the 1990s. The last Indian residential school closed in 1996. Source: www.anishinabek.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/An-Overview-of-the-IRS-System-Booklet.pdf
5. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls examines and reports on the systemic causes of all forms of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the underlying social, economic, cultural, institutional, and historical causes that contribute to the ongoing violence and particular vulnerabilities of this group. It also examines existing institutional policies and practices to address violence, including those that are effective in reducing violence and increasing safety. Source: www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/