by Lynn on November 4, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre, Extra Space until Nov. 6, 2022.

Written and directed by Yolanda Bonnell

Set by Rebecca Vandevelde

Costumes by Julia Surich

Lighting by Echo Zhou

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Cast: Shandra Spears Bombay

Samantha Brown

Theresa Cutknife

Nicole Joy-Fraser

Ange Loft

Monique Mojica

Pesch Nepoose

Tyler J Sloane

The Story. My Sister’s Rage is by Yolanda Bonnell who also directed it. It’s about family grief, generational trauma and coping with death from an Indigenous point of view. And while it is decidedly serious, it’s also funny.

A family of three sisters and their children are standing vigil over their matriarch who is in a coma in the hospital. The mother’s condition fluctuates from improving etc. to failing all while in a coma. And of course, this situation brings out the feelings, animosity and hidden truths of all involved.

The sisters: Sandra, Olivia and Renna have not seen each other for a long time. Sandra and Renna moved away to the city to get on with their lives. Olivia has stayed on the reserve, working in the Band Office and taking care of their mother. Sandra and Renna do not seem to have kept in touch with Olivia. So when they are summoned to come back because their mother is in a coma, there is an initial coolness between them when they meet, until they have it out with each other. 

In the case of Sandra, there is an added sorrow because years before her daughter disappeared and was latter found dead in a river. Foul play was evident but the police did not investigate the case.  Sandra never got over it and began drinking and didn’t stop, even when she came back to see her sick mother. There is a kind of reckoning there, initially with her children telling her that they feel forgotten by her and her drinking. And then Olivia tells Sandra the blunt truth about her drinking and it has to stop and she must face the truth that her daughter has died and she has two other children who need her.

Sandra’s two remaining children, Valerie and Tash, feel lost and resentful because they don’t feel that Sandra actually ‘sees’ them.  She is so mired in her own sorrow, she can’t see her two other children have suffered too.

Olivia has one daughter, Laney who has to deal with her mother’s anger at being the one who stayed behind and took care of her sick mother. Laney has to cope with her own mother’s residual resentment and frustration, while also fretting about her grandmother.

Renna’s daughter Stephie was not only the cousin of the dead girl but also they were best friends. There are a lot of wounded people in this play who all seem isolated in their own grief because their mothers are not giving them the comfort and support they need. The cousins in fact seem to bond better than the sisters do, although the cousins have some prickly moments.

It’s not a spoiler alert that eventually the mother dies and there is a kind of cleansing of old wounds of the sisters and cousins in the traditional burial and celebration of the mother/grandmother.

The Production. Yolanda Bonnell knows and says that in grief, humour is a healer. And her play is often funny because of irreverent things that the characters say to each other.  But Bonnell has also written a character named Wanda (Monique Mojica ) who is a constant presence. Wanda is a witness to the anger, frustration and grief of the characters as well as a person who watches over them, trying to pass on comfort. At times she might seem like a trickster—a magical presence in Indigenous culture, a presence who might shift and manipulate the proceedings. Wanda is comic relief. She tells jokes that are corny, sometimes scatological sometimes hilarious. We know her purpose and buy into her efforts. Also present is the sound of a symbolic crow, overseeing the proceedings. Kudos to Miquelon Rodriquez’s sound, Rebecca Vandevelde’s multi-leveled set and Julia Surich’s costumes.

Playwright/director Yolanda Bonnell has the sisters individually talk to their comatose mother, thus revealing their concerns, personalities and character. And she gradually reveals the many and various animosities that have consumed these sisters for so long.  Every family has gone through this. I don’t think it’s a cliché, but just something that’s familiar.

Yolanda Bonnell also directs her own show. A playwright directing their own work always gives me pause or concerns. After all who will tell the playwright that they should cut their play or tighten scenes, if not the director? Who will tell the director that perhaps they are getting too fussy in the direction, if not a playwright perhaps. But since she’s both the playwright and director, the stuff needing attention is not getting it.

While I appreciated Yolanda Bonnell’s work as a playwright, the play often takes too long to set up stories. There are eight characters and all of them have their own story. Perhaps judicious trimming is in order.

We have to take on faith that Sandra (Shandra Spears Bombay) would stop drinking, get herself out of her depression over her dead child and embrace her other children because she finally saw the light after Olivia (Nicole Joy-Fraser) told her the painful truth. She was confronted by her children, Tash (Tyler J Sloane) and Valerie (Samantha Brown) over this issue, but it didn’t result in change—only when her sister confronted her did it work.

As for the direction, the pace could be tightened. The character of Wanda who provides comic relief initially seems laboured in the joke telling. Although Monique Mojica as Wanda is charming and irreverent, she seems to be directed to deliberately draw out the jokes. I think this defeats the purpose of getting a laugh.

The script and the characters are funny on their own. And sometimes a simple door sticking provides a lot of laughs when a character swears that yet again, the door sticks.

Aside from my concerns of the play needing trimming, pacing and some direction, I thought the acting was fine. As Olivia, Nicole Joy-Fraser is consumed with frustration and anger at her situation. Her movements are quick, her voice is brusque and direct. And there is s grinding despair about the character, but Nicole Joy-Fraser fills her character with determination and resolve.

As Sandra, Shandra Spears Bombay is trying to drown her sorrows in liquor and casual sexual encounters. It’s a performance full of irreverence that hides the sorrow and need to forget. Sandra is feisty and combative when faced with the truth, but it eventually brings her around. As I said, the acting of the whole company is fine.

Comment. While the play is centred in Indigenous culture, it is also applicable to other cultures as well.The best way to make a universal statement is to be very focused and specific.So while we are looking at an Indigenous family grieve such applications apply to probably all cultures. There is the Irish wake that is a bust-up party to celebrate the dearly departed. There is the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for the departed when family and friends are welcome to come and tell stories and reminisce with the grieving family, and I’m sure other cultures have something similar to remember the dead and comfort the living.

I thought it interesting that the title suggests that it’s one sister’s rage—as in ‘s and not s’. Yolanda Bonnell makes us ponder just what sister is she talking about? And who is doing the observing—who is taking when she says, “My Sister’s Rage?”  Bonnell has interesting things to say about grief, trauma, and families from an Indigenous point of view, but with clear universal applications.

Tarragon Theatre, in association with Studio 180 Theatre and TO Live Present:

Plays until: Nov. 6, 2022.

Available for viewing on demand anytime from Nov 16 at 8pm until Dec 11 2022 at 11:59PM.

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