September 30th marks the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and so it was a perfect day to open Civilized at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. Sitting in a packed house with an audience predominantly donning orange shirts, you could tell that the performance was going to be special. Civilized certainly brings forward the Truth aspect of Truth and Reconciliation; it is an eye-opening wake up call for those of us who aren’t familiar with our own history outside of what we learn in Grade 10 History or on those Canadian Heritage Minutes (remember those?). This one-man show performed by Metis actor John D. Huston, written by Keir Cutler, and directed by Paul Hopkins, is vitally important to our understanding of our history.
In the voiceover portion at the beginning of Civilized, Huston tells us about his own troubles getting adopted as a Metis baby. What still stays with me is the “warning” that came with him: that his skin colour may not stay the same as when he was small. The realization that his parents likely put him up for adoption so that he could escape the horrors and traumas of the Residential Schools which he is now about to divulge to the audience hit me like a ton of bricks. Even though this was in the 60’s, the last Residential School didn’t close until 1996, so it was a very real and present danger for his family, who likely would have also suffered at a Residential School as well. Huston’s personal story is a perfect example of how the story he’s about to relate to us is merely the beginning, the seeds being planted for a system of oppression which would last generations to come.
Keir Cutler’s writing is fantastic; you can tell the time and the research he put into this play. Not just for the actual facts about the schools themselves but the other “success stories” which the character discusses throughout the play. It allows us to understand where their mindset was coming from and then know how much farther we still have to go. One thing that struck me about the language that was used in the play was the capitalist buzzwords which are used to justify the taking and usage of native lands. These are the seeds of the society we currently live in being planted by the government; the same seeds which seem to prevent us from having the day for National Truth and Reconciliation as a statutory holiday for us to do the proper reflection and research which I believe the day deserves. Everything is done in the name of Progress, but in this case particularly of White Progress. The notion that everything was being done “for us” as Huston would gesture to the audience, made me very uncomfortable, and it’s meant to. Under the brilliant direction of Paul Hopkins, Civilized achieves exactly what it sets out to do: it makes us open our eyes to what really happened and lights the fire in our hearts to do something about it.
John D. Huston does a marvellous job portraying William Blank, a mid-ranking official in the Indian Affairs department of Sir Wilfred Laurier’s government. I loved the moments where his mouth would go dry as he struggled to accurately impart the truth of a situation; as if the higher power who brought him back to life to tell this story was making sure he was telling the whole story. I loved how he was even able to make us laugh amidst such difficult subject matter. Although when he did get into the heart of things, you could have heard a pin drop in that theatre. Huston demands and easily keeps your attention for all 70 minutes as he unravels his tale. Might I also say that he is costumed so perfectly for the role; his Edwardian dress and his handle-bar mustache make you feel like you’re back in time. His comment about the audience not being in their “Sunday best” for the theatre had me giggling! He is truly spectacular and I can’t wait to see more of what he has to offer!
I implore you to see this play. If you’re in the GTA and are able, please go down to Red Sandcastle Theatre to see Civilized. It is the play we all need to be seeing right now. Civilized should be being performed at High Schools and Colleges and Universities all over this country. We have so much to learn from a performance like this. It is a great first step to truly embracing the idea of Truth and Reconciliation; it has certainly inspired me to continue my research and up the ante on my advocacy for Indigenous voices throughout T’karonto and the rest of the country. For more information and for tickets, please visit: Civilized – Sep 30 – Oct 8, 2022 (ticketscene.ca). This is a small venue folks, so I imagine these tickets will be selling out quite quickly!