Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion Presents a Different Perspective of Canada 150

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I have been waiting for this play for over a year and a half.  During the second semester of my Master’s degree at Wilfrid Laurier University I was thrilled to learn that Drew Hayden Taylor would be the writer in residence.  I attended the ceremony that was held to welcome him to the university and listened with awe as this iconic Canadian playwright delivered his speech.  The most exiting moment of that evening was when he told everyone that he had been commissioned by the National Arts Centre to write a play for the next English Theatre season in order to commemorate Canada 150.  That was what he was going to be working on during his time as writer in residence.  I have been an English Theatre subscriber for about 8 or 9 years now and never have I looked forward to an upcoming theatre season this much.  A writer that I admire was going to be writing a play a few floors below where I had my classes, and then I was going to get to see that play on stage later on as part of my usual theatre subscription.  This was huge.

It was totally worth the wait.  Although this is certainly not the most sophisticated set or audio visual set up I have ever seen in the NAC’s Azireli Studio Theatre, none of that mattered.  The story spoke for itself and anything else was just extra.  Drew Hayden Taylor is an absolutely phenomenal playwright and this play was exactly what I was expecting from him.  The last NAC English Theatre play my mother and I saw that dealt with Aboriginal issues was last season’s Children of God.  It was one of the best plays we have ever seen through the NAC English Theatre but it was deeply disturbing (so much so that there were counselors on site for any audience members who could not cope with the subject matter).  So, understandably, my mom asked me if this play would be as depressing.  I told her, based on previous experiences with Taylor’s works, that it would most likely be a funny play but that it would still deal with some serious issues.  I was absolutely right.  There were some very serious and poignant issues discussed in the play, issues that are very relevant to the recent Canada 150 celebrations and controversies, but we still had some good laughs while all of this was going on.

I later discovered an added bonus: Herbie Barnes.  Barnes was a part of the 2014-2015 NAC English Theatre Ensemble and was also in last English Theatre Season’s Children of God.  Not only is he a phenomenal actor, but my mom and I got to have a conversation with him after we saw Children of God and he is also a fantastic person.  Barnes plays Hugh in Sir John A and his character serves as the comic relief.  He’s not merely there for a laugh though; Hugh is presented as a man out of place in time.  He is not successful in the present on the Reserve, but had he lived in the past he could have been a master storyteller in his Anishinabe community.  He could have played an integral part in his community but instead he is constantly searching for a purpose in life; when he isn’t brainstorming potential career paths, he’s leaving the real world to be in his “happy place”.  But for the purposes of this play he is a master storyteller, and the play is peppered with playful vignettes in which serenades the audience with classic rock songs.  His lighthearted shenanigans easily make him the most lovable character in this entire play.

The other characters, Bobby (Darrell Dennis) and Anya (Katie Ryerson), are competing forces within this narrative.  Bobby wants justice for his grandfather and for generations of aboriginals who have been wronged by the Canadian Government and Sir John A. MacDonald, and provides a perspective that is very much against the Canada 150 celebrations.  Anya, by contrast, is a middle class, university educated, lesbian, white woman who sees Sir John A. MacDonald as a man of his time.  She firmly believes that the issue is simply a matter of perspective and that Sir John A wasn’t all that bad.  That is the main focus of this play: perspective.  No one is necessarily right or wrong – they all simply have different perspectives on the issue based on their individual backgrounds.

This was especially true for the character of Sir John A. MacDonald.  First of all, Martin Julien, who plays Canada’s first prime minister, looks so much like Sir John A. it’s as if the man is back from the dead (which he sort of is at the end of the play…).  The play shifts back and forth between the past and the present, and when we see Sir John A. in the past we get the feeling that, as Anya argues, he is a man of his time.  But it’s still not exactly a sympathetic portrayal of the former prime minister.  He is undoubtedly racist and an alcoholic so he is not exactly the glorified figure of Canadian history that some might expect him to be.  And without a doubt, during the surreal confrontation between Sir John A. and Bobby, it is clear that in that moment the prime minister is in the wrong and that Bobby is right in wanting some kind of justice for himself and his ancestors.

This play definitely gives you a lot to think about, especially because of the recent Canada 150 celebrations, but it is also very entertaining.  The NAC English Theatre’s first play of the season Onegin was definitely a missed opportunity but Sir John A more than made up for it and now it feels like the 2017-2018 theatre season is truly taking off.  This play was absolutely, 100% worth the wait and I cannot recommend it enough.

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