Review: MNO BIMAADIZIWIN, Orillia, Ont.

by Lynn on September 30, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live, in-person, indoors in the Orillia Opera House, Orillia, Ont. Plays until Oct. 3, 2021.

Written by Ziigwen Mixemong

Directed by Herbie Barnes

Set and costume designer and Regalia Curator, Samantha McCue

Lighting designer, Echo Zhou

Sound designer and composer, Mathew Magneson

Cast: JordanM. Burns

Pesch Nepoose

Brianne Tucker

Trina Paula Moyen

John Roldan

This is a gripping, painful, enlightening, gloriously human play. The production is too.

The Story. From the production information: “Based around the experiences of local Indigenous people entering a sweat lodge, Mno Bimaadiziwin (meaning A good way of living) is a story about the resiliency of love, healing and community in the face of trauma.”

Four Indigenous characters meet outside a sweat lodge to partake of the sweat ceremony, in which they will sweat out their demons and thoughts that have burdened them. But first the Conductor (John Roldan) wants to know their stories. So he asks each in turn what brought them to this point.

Imogen (Brianne Tucker) is of mixed race and is not quite sure of her place in either a white or Indigenous culture. She is curious though and has come to the ceremony to find out, and perhaps learn of her roots.

Nisheemaas (Jordan M. Burns) is attending his 6th sweat. He had a good home until he came out to his mother as gay. She rejected him and threw him out of the house. He was homeless for a while until he was found by a kind man and taken in by his ex-wife, Mary. Mary was tough but loving. Nisheemaas stayed for three years until he could find his own place.

Dawnis (Pesch Nepoose) was desperate to be like the popular kids in school so she got into drugs. She became pregnant when she was 16-years-old when Children’s Aid took her child away. Zhawen (Trina Paula Moyen) was a student at the University of Toronto but the pressure of measuring up to the white students took its toll. She said she had to run twice as fast to even keep up. She was so distraught she attempted suicide.

All four characters came to the Sweat Lodge Ceremony seeking answers to their questions and solutions to their traumas.

The Production. Playwright Ziigwen Mixemong has set her play in Orillia and this is where it is also performed. Samantha McCue’s set is simple. A blue round tent with an open flap sits centre stage. This is the sweat lodge. Tree stumps are placed around the space. These are the the objects on which the characters sit when they are preparing for the sweat lodge. There is a pile of what looks like clothes stage left. Echo Zhou’s lighting suggests a dappled pattern flickering across the stage—perhaps a reflection from a camp fire. There is a feint sound effect of drumming in the background and ceremonial singing of traditional Indigenous songs, along with the crack of twigs breaking or fire crackling as it burns wood.

The characters enter the space and sit on the tree stumps waiting to be greeted by the Conductor (John Roldan). The cast is strong, expressing each character’s story with a mix of confidence and also reticence. They each have burdens they need to unload and share and they have to be comfortable enough to do it in this ceremony. The reticence is that these are deep rooted guilts. The cast handles it all beautifully. The Conductor is the one who asks each to tell their story. John Roldan as the Conductor (and others) is inviting and never judgmental.

During the course of the story-telling there are many references to “The Creator.” Some characters are either entreating The Creator to help or end their pain. Nisheemaas asks the creator why he made him gay, the cause for such upheaval in his life. The Creator talked to him about being 2-spirited.  There are wonderful scenes in which The Creator reminds the characters of the time before they were born, in which they have a conversation with The Creator about the world they are going into, the difficulties they will have and why it’s important that they endure. Life and every person are sacred.

Director Herbie Barnes has filled his production with vivid imagery. The idea of The Creator is established by two arms appearing out of the blue tent. That’s it, just the arms. John Roldan plays The Creator, in a majestic voice. They are the strong arms of a spirit that can hold up the most disappointed being; the arms are beckoning; strong and embracing. It’s a lovely image. Often you got the impression that a lot of the staging in Herbie Barnes’ direction is evocative of a ceremony which enriched the production.

Comment. Iain Moggach, the Artistic Director of Theatre By the Bay in Barrie, Ont. invited Ziigwen Mixemong to write a play for the company. Mno Bimaadiziwin is the result. It’s a look into Indigenous culture, set in Orillia and is performed there.  The stories of the four characters are harrowing but the teachings, ceremonies, and wisdom leads each character through their ordeals into enlightenment and brings the audience along with them. Ziigwen Mixemong illuminates the meaning of the title “a good way of living” that involves listening, sharing, respect, decency, forgiveness, kindness, and caring for others.  Those who are not Indigenous will find echoes of their culture in this play. Theatre bridges our differences and illuminates our similarities. More than anything, I loved that Ziigwen Mixemong celebrates the all including embrace of Indigenous culture in the play.

This is a wonderful play. I want to see every single play that Ziigwen Mixemong writes in future. And I hope there are a lot of them. This kind of talent must be supported, embraced and championed.

Produced by Theatre By the Bay

Runs until Oct. 3, 2021.

Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

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