It’s a fitting opening night for Civilized, the one-man show at the sweet Red Sandcastle Theatre (a perfect venue for this intimate show). The smart solid production chose wisely, scheduling the night most brilliantly on Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day that honors the children who never returned home and the survivors of Canada’s notorious residential schools as well as their families and communities. It was a much more meaningful evening than I was prepared for when I entered the Red Sandcastle Theatre but once I started to notice the sea of orange tee shirts in the audience, my friend and I realized that there must be a connection. And boy, was that an understatement.
I hadn’t read a thing about the show, as is my nature, wanting to be clear and uninhibited by expectations and internalized opinions, but I sort of wish, this time round, I had been a bit more emotionally prepared for what was to come. It was a journey, I will tell you that. An important one; vital, but also a difficult one personally, and I’m sure for many others in the audience that night.
Having the show open on this, the 2nd annual National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is a solidly clear and worthy demarcation. The production centers itself around that very tragedy, and is a significant and fitting public commemoration, in its own particular way, of the horrific and painful part of Canada’s history and also the ongoing impacts of residential schools on the Indigenous community. This essential play, Civilized, written with a clear intent by playwright Keir Cutler (Magnificence), is based on original primary source research on the Sir Wilfrid Laurier government, including a deep dive inside the Canadian Parliamentary Records, House of Commons debates, Department of Indian Affairs annual reports, newspaper archives, and the writings and reports of Dr. Peter Bryce. It feels very alive and on point, this research, and plays particularly well, especially in the hands of both actor and playwright.
The play’s focus and span of the work dig deep into the trenches of the time, and the results are utterly riveting and powerful. They take us back in time and find inventive and instructive ways of giving both necessary information and delivering an uncomfortable space for a certain determined government official to try to justify these schools’ existence to this modern-day audience. The purpose is clear, and the early warnings of what will follow are accurate and deserving.
Civilized is a hard show to take in, especially for this card-carrying Indigenous person, who has a mother who grew up on a reservation in southwestern Ontario, and tells her own story of moving off the reservation, suddenly, one day after school. She, and I, can only make an educated guess why my grandfather, her father, one day, out of the blue, decided he had to get his family off the reservation right away. I’m sure some pretty loud alarm bells were going off somewhere quietly on that reservation and, more importantly, in his head. He must have thought that his children might be part of the next rounding up. That they might be taken on their way home one day, snatched up off the street, and placed, without their consent, into one of those residential schools. And my grandfather, I imagine, was not going to let that happen to his family.