Review: The War Being Waged

by Lynn on December 3, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

On-line from Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, Manitoba, until Dec. 12.

Written by Darla Contois

Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones

Set, lighting and projection design by Andy Moro

Costumes by Andy Moro and Brenda McLean

Composer/sound design by MJ Dandeneau

Choreography by Jera Wolfe

Film director, Sam Vint.

Ice River Films

Cast: Tracey Nepenak

Emily Solistice Tait

The voice of Tantoo Cardinal

A challenging, unsettling, exquisite story of the lives of three Indigenous woman in the same family told with grace, dance and powerful understatement.

The Story. From the production’s information: “An Indigenous mother becomes an activist while her brother becomes a soldier. A grandmother raises a granddaughter with love, in community. A granddaughter full of turmoil, finds her voice. Three generations of Indigenous women are woven into this new work by Winnipeg-based theatre artist Darla Contois. And three performance genres tell their story – monologue, poetry with video and movement, and contemporary dance – all tied together by the playwright’s story and an all-encompassing set design that has built a world for all three to live inside.”

From the Playwright:

“The story you are about to experience is incredibly personal to me. It is based on one of my deepest fears, my experiences and as well is a response to one of the most important questions we ask ourselves as Indigenous people: What are you fighting for? 

In it you will find remnants of real people, real conflicts and real relationships. I hope you’re ready to listen with an open heart.”

The Indigenous woman quietly tells her story. She was the youngest of three children. She had two older brothers. The eldest brother bullied her mercilessly. She was only a teenager when she considered suicide because of this bullying. She considered her second oldest brother her ‘protector.’ He protected her from the bully brother and other issues in her life. Her protector soon distanced himself from his sister when he got a girlfriend. They spent a lot of private time together.  The girlfriend became pregnant. Her parents—white, racist—felt the Indigenous man was not good enough for their daughter. So, the protector brother went into the army to prove himself. The Indigenous woman was alone. She too became pregnant by her boyfriend who didn’t want anything to do with the baby. The woman was determined to get an education and leave the reserve. She moved to Toronto and took care of her baby. At another point in her story the Indigenous woman and her daughter moved back to Manitoba and her mother took care of the child, while the daughter went to work. She became an activist for better treatment of her Indigenous people, following a path of service to her people in that way, as her brother followed service in the military. At one point these worlds clash.

The story is such a litany of the trials and challenges of Indigenous life—addiction, displacement, broken treaties, the trauma of residential schools, polluted water etc.– one is tempted to look away and shut down from the burden of absorbing it. But because of the sensitive artistry of playwright Darla Contois, director Thomas Morgan Jones and actress Tracey Nepenak we don’t look away. We meet the story face on, open-hearted and heart-broken.  

The Production. Andy Moro’s set is a clear raised oblong floor, with various clear panels sectioning off the space. A clear box with a lid is placed within two narrow panels. The Indigenous woman (Tracey Nepenak) enters the space wearing a long brown dress with lighter sections. The sleaves have a latticed pattern along the arms She also wears a shawl of brown with a delicate pattern on it. There is a fringe of silver ribbons around the edges of the shawl. Initially the shawl looks not only functional but also ceremonial, perhaps sacred. We find out a deeper meeting at the end of the monologue.  

The woman sits on the box and addresses an unseen stranger. The woman seems happy to see her. We get the sense of who that is at the end of the monologue. At the top of the monologue, there is a subtle sound effect of gently babbling water. The water sounds clean and clear, an irony from what the woman will talk about later in her monologue. When the woman begins to speak, the sound subsides. Nothing obscures the monologue. Occasionally film director, Sam Vint focuses the camera on the woman’s stripped tattooed fingers as they caress the fringe of the shawl. The camera work is never fussy or intrusive. It focuses on the woman’s face.  

The woman says that she grew up with nature, birds, air and brooks. One gets the whole sense of that bracing nature from MJ Dandeneau’s unobtrusive sound scape. As the woman, Tracey Nepenak’s voice is measured, calm, nuanced and controlled. The woman gently laughs when she admits she attempted suicide when she was a teenager because of her older brother’s bullying and her desperate loneliness. The juxtaposition of that laugh and the seriousness of what she did adds more weight to the attempt. Director Thomas Morgan Jones’ sensitive direction of this piece and Tracey Nepenak’s careful revealing of the story, keeps one gripped to the story and its implications. The telling is so nuanced and gradually builds to the point when the woman is more defiant when she illuminates how aware she became because of the injustices to her Indigenous people. The tone is more commanding but not angered in shouting. Nepenak and Jones both have a command of storytelling in all its shadings.

As the story reaches its heart-squeezing conclusion Nepenak slows the pace, guiding the audience to consider the full impact of what is happening.  At the end of the monologue Tracey Nepenak carefully takes off the shawl and one sees another aspect of what it is when she turns and we can read the words on the back. She carefully folds the shawl, as if it’s a sacred ceremony and carefully places it inside the box and stands aside.

Appearing behind the Indigenous woman is a young dancer (Emily Solistice Tait).  Her face has slashes of red across her eyes and down her arms; her hair is pulled back and is fashioned in tight braids. She wears a costume with stripes across her front that looks almost skeletal, a red outline is behind the stripes; there is a latticed pattern on the back (the same lattice work as on the arms of the woman’s dress) and pants in the same colours and pattern as the Indigenous woman’s dress. She is barefoot.

She moves the confining walls around the box where the woman sat, and frees up the space. Piano, drums, bead-crashing music plays during the section, insistence, sometimes urgent. The dancer investigates the space slowly, carefully as the Indigenous woman watches. Sometimes their arm movements are the same, as if they are mirrors of each other. Sometimes they engage, sitting on the box, their backs to each other. But for the most part, the second section is the dancer’s. I would not presume to interpret the dance—not my vocabulary. But Jera Wolfe’s choreography does tell the story of this young woman, and Emily Solistice Tait’s dancing is compelling and clear. The dancer can also be representative of the spirit of Indigenous women, confident, fearless, curious, determined.

During the dance section, the lilting voice of Tantoo Cardinal acts as the loving voice of the Indigenous woman, continuing the story and we learn who this young woman is. The voice says: “My greatest gift, my blood is yours and we are tied together, forever. My baby girl. I will protect you. And you will know love.”

The dialogue here is full of teachings of listening, hearing, seeing and embracing nature and its bounty. It’s a mother trying to instill the culture of Indigenous life in her child. Darla Contois’ dialogue is poetic, vivid, and vibrant in realizing a culture that might be so different than our, but is also embracing.

The camera work/dance sequence is more complex, with smoke, shifting scenes, and variations in Andy Moro’s light. The dance section is no less compelling in its storytelling that the first monologue section.

Comment. The War Being Waged is a stunning piece of theatre. Darla Contois has created a story that is familiar, harrowing, compelling, nuanced, full of love, grace and art.

Prairie Theatre Exchange in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts.

Streams until Dec. 12.

Running time: 70 minutes.

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