Before getting into the relative merits of the play, the production of Isitwendam (An Understanding) has one of the finest integrations of theatrical values I have witnessed in many a moon. The set (Hans Saefkow), lighting (Melissa Joakim), projections (Andy Moro with Joakim), and sound (Marc Meriläinen) move together with the precision of a military tattoo. When actor/playwright Meegwun Fairbrother is added to the mix, a fifth element becomes totally synchronized into the whole. If I had to sum up the visual/aural impact of this production in one word, it would be impressive.
Isitwendam (An Understanding) is Fairbrother’s response to the Residential School Apology made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008. “Isitwendam” is the Ojibway word for “understanding”. With no word for “sorry” in Ojibway, the closest concept Fairbrother could find in the language was “understanding”. The co-creator and director of the piece is Jack Grinhaus, and his intimate involvement with Isitwendam from the beginning is manifested in the meticulous attention to detail that pervades the work.
In this one-man show, Fairbrother portrays a wide array of men and women, a character parade which exercises his considerable acting chops to the max. We first meet law student Brendan when he is applying for a summer internship with his beloved Conservative government in Ottawa. Because of his Native heritage, (Brendan is half Ojibway and half white), he is assigned to Aboriginal Affairs. His first job is being part of Harper’s Hit Squad, the name given to the apparatchiks whose main goal is disproving the reparation claims of Residential School survivors. This takes Brendan to a reserve near Kenora, where his particular target is an elderly woman, Virginia Baptiste. In the north, Brendan is forced to come to terms with both his Native heritage, and the father who left him and his mother many years ago.
Not only is Fairbrother constantly changing characters, he is also changing costumes which is timed down to the minute. Whether a calculating Ottawa bureaucrat, Virginia’s pragmatic French-Canadian legal advisor, or a not terribly sympathetic Kenora waitress, Fairbrother and Grinhaus have painstakingly found different voices and postures to bring the play’s many personas to life. And what is more, they are all believable. Fairbrother states in his program notes that he is angry and hurt over Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people. Without giving away any spoilers, Isitwendam would seem to be the playwright working through his pain to find an understanding with both the past and the present. If I have any cavil, it is that parts of the plotline seem contrived, and a little too pat, as it were. Nonetheless, Isitwendam is a moving piece of theatre that packs an emotional wallop.
The intriguing set features large interlocking wooden wheels that look like the frames of giant drums. Grinhaus has Fairbrother go up, down, around and behind these frames on Brendan’s journey of discovery. We never know where the actor is going to appear. The set is also full of surprises with panels that move and holes that open. The evocative projections appear on the mainframe and two large screens. They go from the realistic – a picture of a bedroom denotes Brendan’s motel room – to the fanciful – a gorgeous display of Aboriginal symbols. The sound design is a stunning combination of atmospheric music and pin-spot sound effects, while the lighting is a multi-coloured kaleidoscope of many moods. All the elements move together like the intricate workings of a Swiss watch.
When taken as a whole, Isitwendam (An Understanding) is a carefully crafted production that is rich in detail, whether in character portrayal or theatrical presentation. Brendan’s personal journey takes place against a landscape and soundscape of immense imagination.
Native Earth Performing Arts & Bound to Create Theatre/Isitwendam (An Understanding), written and performed by Meegwun Fairbrother, co-created and directed by Jack Grinhaus, Aki Studio, Mar. 17 to 31, 2019.