Review of the text of the play of bug by Yolanda Bonnell

by Lynn on March 15, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer


Written by Yolanda Bonnell

(not to be confused by the play Bug by Tracy Letts)

ISBN 978-1-927922-66-8

Scirocco Drama

As we have not been in a theatre for a year to see a live performance, I’m reviewing the next best thing, a text of a recently published play. Previously I reviewed Controlled Damage by Andrea Scott. This time I’m reviewing bug by Yolanda Bonnell.  In both cases I bought the text.

From the blurb of bug: “The Girl traces her life from surviving the foster care system to her struggles with addictions. She fights, hoping to break the cycle in order to give her daughter a different life than the one she had. The Mother sits in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, recounting memories of the daughter that was taken from her, and the struggles of living on the streets in Northern Ontario. They are both followed by Manidoons, a physical manifestation of the trauma and addiction that crawl across generations.

bug is a solo performance and artistic ceremony that highlights the ongoing effects of colonialism and intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous women, as well as testimony to the women’s resistance and strength.”

The Story.

The text begins with circles (characters in the play will meet in support circles). The sound of a drumbeat. The importance of ancestors and elders is established, as is nature, the searching to understand what one does not understand and metaphor, symbolism and resilience.

The play is about the cycles of despair, trying to overcome it, failing, trying again. The lives of The Mother and The Girl will be entwined (encircled?) because they both experienced the same things, try as they might not to.  The Mother was addicted to alcohol and constantly tried to stop. A saving grace was her daughter. The Mother loved her unconditionally. Eventually her daughter was taken away by the authorities.  A cycle of foster home placements followed for The Girl. She became addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, food and drugs. She found ‘love’ with boys and men. She got pregnant.  When The Girl’s daughter was born The Girl gave her baby unconditional love as well. (The Girl says: “All I wanted was to love my baby the way I wasn’t.”)

But always present were Manidoons, ‘a physical manifestation of the trauma and addictions that crawl across generations.” Their grip was so tight first on The Mother and then The Girl, trying to escape was almost futile. That didn’t mean they didn’t try with all their might.

In one harrowing scene The Girl is bathing her baby daughter in the bathtub and singing to her when Manidoons entices The Girl away. (“At some point in the song, her MANIDOONS hand begins to creep and pull her away. She tries to fight it momentarily but eventually it wins, both hands infected, crawling up her body.”) When The Girl breaks free of the grip of Manidoons she races back to her daughter and finds her submerged in the water. We fear the baby is dead. The Girl saves her. But again, the authorities take The Girl’s daughter from her.

Yolanda Bonnell’s language is vivid, spare and onomatopoeic—the choice of words evokes sounds. For example, in the first of five Manidoons scenes:

“….The sounds of escape

The pitter


Of helplessness

The patter

Patter of despair

The tip and the toe of running towards the thing she loves the most in this world

Of thirst and

Need and

Want and…”

The words sound like drum beats, rhythmic beating. Hypnotizing and commanding. The play is full of such language.  

Yolanda Bonnell’s play is vital, provocative and important in illuminating Indigenous stories, traditions and ceremonies. As with all works of art, the play transcends one specific culture and has resonance in others depending of course on the reader. While Manidoons is so specific to Indigenous culture with its particular definition, that manifestation could also have resonance to ‘the Devil’ in Christianity; ‘the Dybbuk’ in Judaism, the ‘gods’ in Greek mythology, the crow in Australian Aboriginal culture, and many other names in other cultures.   

The Girl is fascinated by fire flies, a recurring symbol, she tries to catch them and their light. They offer her light in her dark world.

bug is both poetic and justifiably brutal in what happens to The Girl and her Mother. Yolanda Bonnell shines a light on issues that should concern us all. Her characters have demons and resilience in fighting them. And in a shining moment the play ends with Hope.


The text of bug contains many informative essays. One is “A Decolonial Act of Resistance” which explains why manidoons collective (Yolanda Bonnell and Cole Alvis the director of the theatre production of bug) made the decision not to invite white theatre critics to review the production when it played in Toronto in February 2020. I would be remiss if I did not respectfully address this decision and the essay.

To be accurate, Ms Bonnell writes: “In our process and work of decolonizing theatre practices, centering marginalized voices, particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) is incredibly important. There is an aspect to cultural work—or in our case, artistic ceremony—which does not align with current colonial reviewing practices. In order to encourage a deeper discussion of the work, we are inviting critiques or thoughts from BIPOC folks only. There is a specific lens that white settlers view cultural work through and at this time, we’re just not interested in bolstering that view, but rather the thoughts and views of fellow marginalized voices and in particular, Indigenous women.”

Ms Bonnell writes they received mixed responses to the request, some supportive, much of it vitriolic. Welcome to my world.  

Conspicuous by its absence in this essay is any Canadian historical context that notes that for at least four decades the theatrical stories, plays and voices of many marginalized peoples, not just Indigenous, were supported and championed by the very people Ms Bonnell wanted to exclude from reviewing her production.

Also missing is any reference that the whole practice of reviewing plays in the media has been decimated over the last several years. There used to be four daily newspapers in Toronto, all of which reviewed shows regularly. Now there is only one newspaper (The Globe and Mail) that thinks theatre is important to review regularly. NOW Magazine used to review every professional production. Since ownership changed hands reviews are few and far between. CBC Radio used to review theatre, dance and music (Where I reviewed theatre weekly). That stopped completely about 11 years ago when ‘their demographic changed.’ This ushered in the world of the (unpaid) blogger who had something to say and created a platform for themselves to say it.  Welcome to my world again. I am also fortunate to review theatre for CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 for CIUT FM a radio station that caters to other voices, with its multi-racial, multi-ethnic shows. Again, we volunteer and don’t get paid.

Also decimated were criticism programs at Universities, colleges etc. to learn the craft of arts reviewing.

New, culturally diverse voices are always welcome. Room is always made in the circle for a different point of view. What Ms Bonnell seems to be espousing is exclusion. And equating a person’s perceived skin colour (white) with the lens with which they view anything, suggests racism to me. It’s as if the perceived skin colour negates a person’s life experience, character, education, theatre going experience, perception, curiosity, embracing of other ideas, observations, analytical abilities and all the other myriad aspects that go into looking at theatre and forming an opinion. This blinkered attitude cuts off discussion, respectful disagreement and exchange of ideas. It renders any kind of desire to understanding the other side of the story as hopeless.

But them Ms Bonnell has the wonderful essay: “Decoding Manidoons—An instructional manual” in which she explains the five Manidoons scenes in the play. Most important for our purposes is the first paragraph: “I initially wrote this manual for our design team so they would grasp a deeper understanding of Manidoons’ text—their needs and wants hidden within the poetry. So I give this here, but also understand that whatever you, the reader, feel any of these words mean to you—you are correct. Nothing only means one thing in this story.”


For years, for every theatre discussion group I have led; every theatre workshop or reviewing workshop I’ve conducted, I have always said that there are as many different opinions of a play as there are people in the audience watching it. And those opinions are all valid. They aren’t equal, but they are valid. It is so heartening that Yolanda Bonnell has arrived at this realization—that all opinions are valid. Discussion and understanding is possible and Ms Bonnell gives us that most important word used at the end of her play, HOPE.

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