One of my biggest frustrations with my experience with the Manitoban education system was the lack of Indigenous curriculum. Or, more bluntly, the complete non-existence of Indigenous education in the curriculum. I’m embarrassed to say that the first time I ever learned about residential schools was when I was eighteen years old and in my first year of university. I was eighteen years old and completely unaware of an immensely important part of my country’s history.
At first, I felt embarrassed. Surely I could have taken it upon myself to learn about my country outside of school. But then I thought to myself, if I didn’t take the initiative to learn about history outside of school, what other kids did? I’m sure there are kids who did, but I’m also sure there are kids who didn’t.
Want to know what we did learn about? Plot structure. I think I covered plot structure every single year in my English class from grade seven up until grade 12. It starts with the exposition (or the introduction), the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and then the denouement (or the resolution). That’s it. Plot structure. Fascinating stuff, right?
I apologize if this is coming off as rash and rude, but I watched a play Tuesday night and all of a sudden all of the hostility toward the Manitoban education system came back to me.
Reservations, put on by Theatre Projects Manitoba at The Rachel Browne Theatre, was created by Steven Ratzlaff and directed by Emma Tibaldo and Ian Ross. It was separated into two acts with a common theme of Indigenous issues.
The first act was about Pete (played by Steven Ratzlaff), a retired Mennonite farmer, who wants to give his acreage back to the Siksika First Nation, rather than to his daughter, Anna (Sarah Constible), who was supposed to inherit the land. Pete’s second wife Esther (Tracey Nepinak), a Cree woman, finds herself stuck in the middle of the dispute.
The second act explores a dispute Jenny (played by Sarah Constible) and her husband Mike (Ratzlaff) have with the Aboriginal CFS agency worker Denise (Nepinak) who is responsible for their three Indigenous foster children. Mike and Denise are both university academics who explore the philosophical teachings of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, comparing his ideas about life to Indigenous culture.
Reservations reminded me of my unease with the Manitoba education system for two reasons: the important questions it asks and its unconventional story structure.
It raises important questions about reconciliation between Indigenous people and settlers, a topic ignored by the Manitoba education system, and neither act had a resolution, which strays from the traditional plot structure the Manitoba education system loves so much.
My overall impression of the play is a positive one, mainly because it brings important Indigenous issues to attention, but I’m embarrassed to say I found my mind wandering at times. Although I was thinking about the issues raised during the play, I don’t think Ratzlaff intended to have the audience’s minds wandering until the play actually ended.
The lighting, set, and music design was impressive considering the small venue, and the acting was convincing, but the play lacked certain elements of theatre that makes for a captivating performance. I’m in no way an expert on plays and theatre, but I’ve been to enough local performances to understand that an audience should be entertained.
The first act was immediately captivating with projected images of wheat fields blowing in the background and thematically matching music created by Andrew Balfour, but once the wind settled and the storyline began, the captivation dissolved. The action that ensued consisted mainly of a familial debate around a table. Despite the severity and importance of the debate, I don’t think watching people argue for 30 minutes is considered theatrical.
Similarly, despite the equal importance of the debate in the second act, watching another 30-minute argument wasn’t particularly captivating, even if Jenny did call Denise a “cunt” in the heat of the argument. Not only did the second act include another lengthy debate, but there was also a point when the set changes to a university lecture theatre and Denise lectures the audience on the similarities between Martin Heidegger’s philosophies and Indigenous culture. I’m no philosopher, so perhaps this is just me, but being lectured on the process of being uprooted does not peak my interest. Nor does it seem theatrical.
During the talkback session, which mostly consisted of awkward questions from the audience and no response from Ratzlaff, Tracey Nepinak commended Theatre Projects Manitoba for taking on a project that discussed Indigenous issues in theatre. I also commend them for doing so because Reservations succeeded in re-establishing my discontent with the Manitoba education system (even if that further distracted me from the play).
Ultimately, I appreciate how Reservations is set up to leave the audience contemplating its own resolution on important Indigenous issues; however, I can’t help but think a play was the wrong medium. Yes, as a country there is still a ton we need to do to work towards reconciliation between Indigenous people and settlers, and yes, these are conversations that need to happen, but I don’t think a play consisting of arguments is the way to do it.
But hey, if the conversations aren’t happening in the Manitoba education system, at least they’re happening somewhere.