A Cluttered Telling of Tragic Tales

Globe and Mail

December 12, 2008

In A Very Polite Genocide, Winnipeg playwright Melanie J. Murray examines the lingering effects of the residential-school system on a fractured family of aboriginal Canadians.

The pain from the abuse and dislocation echoes down the generations in the form of alcoholism, AIDS, suicide, sexual abuse, prostitution, violence, self-mutilation and panic attacks.

Once the horrors of the Korean War enter the scene, however, it becomes clear that Murray is trying to tackle too much in too disjointed a manner.

As one tragedy rear-ends the next, the play becomes as elucidatory and emotionally involving as rubber-necking past a highway pile-up.

A Very Polite Genocide hops back and forth between three time periods: 1950-1953, 1982-1984 and 1996. This is information gleaned from the program rather than director Yvette Nolan's muddy production, which takes an unnecessarily long time to make clear how the characters are related.

In the time closest to the present, university student Josie Pichette (Falen Johnson) is dealing - not very well - with the discovery that she is of aboriginal descent; her mother was one of many children taken by the government and placed with white families in the fifties.

In her aboriginal-studies class, Josie attempts to articulate the play's thesis that residential schooling was "a very polite genocide," but, rather inexplicably, has trouble getting her words out without compulsively wringing her hands, being struck dumb by anxiety or falling into a sort of epileptic fit. (That her crisis caused her to drop out of pre-med doesn't seem like such a bad life decision.)

Meanwhile, across town, Josie's grandfather Martin Drunken Chief (a warm Paul Chaput) is participating in his first sharing circle, where he tells the story of how he met his wife, Mary, at a dance between residential schools, and they ran off to Winnipeg together. But soon, Martin, who struggles with the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest, was off fighting in Korea and his children were taken away in his absence.

These flashbacks to the fifties involve the most compelling mix of pleasure and pain. Paula-Jean Prudat is charming and affecting as the young Mary, while the more limited actor Simon Moccasin plays the younger Martin.

Set in the eighties, the third section of the play tells the story of one of the couple's children, Robbie, who emerged from the foster-care system as a male prostitute working the streets of Winnipeg's North End.

These three generations are connected directly by the presence of the Rougarou, a mythical werewolf played by the sprightly Waawaate Fobister, who dances destruction into each character's life.

Designed by Laird Macdonald, A Very Polite Genocide's set lists like a sinking ship; empty alcohol bottles roll down the set to the audience's feet, an unsettling touch. The set is littered with family photographs that find their way into everything, like sand after a trip to the beach.

But A Very Polite Genocide feels very much like a stack of photographs of three generations thrown into the air and let fall where they may. While this method of storytelling emphasizes the way aboriginal families were similarly scattered, the lack of structure, suspense or forward motion makes this is a long hour and 45 minutes. The play could use an intermission, but where could it be split that would give audiences a reason to come back? Murray writes finely observed dialogue, but lacks the craft to pull all the strands of her ambitious narrative together.

A Very Polite Genocide continues to Dec. 21 (416-975-8555).


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