God and the Indian: Play about residential schools finds truth in humour
May 4, 2015 Updated : May 5, 2015
You might think you know about residential schools.
You’ve seen them in headlines since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began unwrapping the individual horrors of the government’s attempts to destroy indigenous culture. You know about the abuses, the tearing apart of families, the ripple effects of alcoholism, the violence and the poverty.
You know who was the victim and who was to blame. So you’d know what to expect if you went to see a play about it. And then, if that play is God and the Indian, you’d be disappointed.
In the play, now running in Toronto and headed to Vancouver later in the month, Johnny Indian confronts the priest she believed raped her as a child. And he denies it.
“Very few characters in history who are evil think they’re evil,” playwright Drew Hayden Taylor told me over the phone. He was busy preparing a dinner of stuffed peppers, “a traditional Ojibwe dish.”
Yes, that’s a joke. Taylor is a funny man, often writing plays and satires that capture what he calls indigenous “survival humor.” As an elder once told him, “Humor is the WD-40 of healing for native people.”
It is also present in Johnny. “I guess it helps when you are the same race as God,” she quips in the play. Another time she mentions getting pregnant with a man named Dick: “That’s what happens with Dicks,” she says.
Taylor’s comedic plays are subversive, he argues, because “the vast majority of my native characters aren’t dysfunctional enough for mainstream audiences.”
The trick of this play isn’t what it tells you about residential schools — it’s what it doesn’t say about who is to blame. There is no justice. Despite her pleas, Johnny doesn’t get a confession. Despite his denial, we don’t know if the priest is innocent.
In God and the Indian, there is no tidy corner of history to put residential schools and all the trauma they have wrought. We cannot walk away from the play and say to ourselves, “That’s done.”