This afternoon I had one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of my life in a converted movie theatre at a matinee performance of Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes. This isn’t really a review of the play, the production or the performances. This is more of a gushing forth of the complicated background of my personal response to a powerful, challenging, painful piece of theatre.
My first encounter with Where the Blood Mixes was reading the play in early April, 2011. I was reading it because it had won the Governor General’s Literary Award and for some years I’ve made it a point to read as many GG winners as I can lay my hands on. In that Spring of 2011 I was also immersed in some obscure and not so obscure bits of Fraser Valley history and literature. I was planning a road trip with my daughter down the Valley to retrace as well as possible the walking journey of British Novelist Morley Roberts in the 1880s, shortly before the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The setting of Loring’s play – Lytton, B.C., where the Thompson and Fraser Rivers meet – was a pleasant surprise, as Lytton was also the jumping off point for one of the most surreal episodes of Roberts’ trek, an episode which I was to learn sends out historical and literary tendrils which deeply inform Loring’s play for me.
Morley Roberts arrived in Lytton after walking away from his temporary employment laying track in the Kicking Horse Pass. His plan, which he completed, was to walk to the coast, following what would soon be the Canadian Pacific Railway and what would much later become the Trans-Canada Highway. I’ll skip over the vast majority of Roberts’s adventure. If you can find a copy of his The Western Avernus, it’s a fascinating travelogue of a large part of Western North America in the 1880s, well worth discovering. For the purposes of this reflection on Where the Blood Mixes I’ll just talk about Roberts’s walk from Lytton to what is now Boston Bar.
Roberts set out in the morning along the rough path which eventually would become, in large part, Highway 1, hugging the east slope of the Fraser Canyon. His description are of a sublimely wild and untamed wilderness. Throughout this section of his narrative, one has the distinct impression that he is travelling in a sort of mystic solitude. As I read it I was put in mind of parts of Basho’s Narrow Road into the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi). Roberts seems to be stumbling along in a timeless and endless primeval forest, forgetting himself whatever reason he might have come here or any goal he may have once had in mind.
But suddenly, Roberts is on the front porch of a nicely kept hotel! Inside he finds that the house is kept by a clergyman and his assistant with the help of what Roberts describes as “a boy”. Roberts spends the late afternoon and evening teaching the threesome how to make bread, enjoys a dinner with the two men, and then retires to the drawing room for cigars, fine liquor and a discussion of Latin poetry. Then, fed, watered, intellectually stimulated, and rested, Roberts bids farewell to the hotel in the woods and walks off into the gather night. In the utter darkness Roberts finally stumbles into a stopping house at Boston Bar. The rest of his journey has none of the strangeness of that walk south from Lytton.
In fact, the “Hotel” was Forty Mile House, now long disappeared, one of the many stopping houses left over from the Caribou Gold Rush. After a good deal of research, I learned that the clergyman Roberts encountered was Richard Small, the head of the Anglican Mission at Lytton and the subject of a hagiographic little biography called Archdeacon on Horseback. Forty Mile House had recently been taken over by the Mission as a resting place on the Archdeacon’s circuit of his charges over the surrounding area. Small was also responsible for the establishment of St. George’s Residential School, an act for which he is much praised by the authors of Archdeacon on Horseback. What a wonderful gift he brought to the poor benighted native children! Frankly, I gag when I read Archdeacon on Horseback. St. George’s is the dark evil in the background of Where the Blood Mixes. As Loring writes in his afterword, when the Band finally got control of the Residential School, they immediately tore it down it was such a painful wound on their community.
Another tendril, this one literary, runs from Roberts’ strange journey through Ethel Wilson’s great Canadian novel Swamp Angel. Wilson’s protagonist, Maggie, leaves here marriage and flees by bus to Lytton from the south, the opposite direction from Roberts. And her journey through the area is also a little surreal. As she travels north, Maggie notices very carefully the changes in the landscape, a landscape eerily devoid of humanity. But suddenly she sees an old overgrown cemetery with three decaying crosses in it. When investigating the area on our road trip, at first I thought Wilson might have been describing the recently renovated Lytton Cemetery, but her description seemed to place the three crosses farther from the town. As my daughter and I drove south, suddenly a small cemetery flashed past us. At the first opportunity I returned to take a few photos. I’d been keeping careful note of our odometer reading and later was able to work out that this cemetery, the one most likely described by Maggie in Wilson’s novel, is very near to the location of Forty Mile House, where Roberts spent his nice evening with the founder of the Residential School which is the reason for the generational agony in Where the Blood Mixes.
Do all these details surrounding Forty Mile House have any meaning or, indeed, anything to do with the play? I don’t know about for anyone else, but they add a new, personal depth to the play for me. For me. This is a highly personal (and idiosyncratic) response.
Earlier, as my daughter and I were approaching Lytton from the east, I noticed two aboriginal gentlemen climbing up over the grey boulders from the direction of the Thompson River bank, and I couldn’t help but think with fondness “they could be Floyd and Mooch!” And it is here that I will come to the production I saw this afternoon.
I found the set to be brilliant. Not minimalist but efficient. Everything is of the river: the grey stones such as I noticed “Floyd and Mooch” climbing over as we approached Lytton; the riverworn logs which serve as bridge and bar; the crushed oil drum and old tire, the detritus of the Shum’mas, and the bit of railroad that brought the Shum’mas to the Place in the Heart Where the Blood Mixes. The stage is lit before the play starts with a submarine blue: from the moment one enters the theatre, it is clear that this play is about what lies beneath the surface. The sound design is all water and wind and the sounds of nature with at least one train whistle reminding us whence comes the pain. And, of course, the skeletal sturgeon and eagle, water and wind, which preside over the play must be mentioned in their ominousness.
Something that really caught my eye was the subtle detail of George (Robert Benz) mopping the floor as the cast sang Ashe’ Mashe’. The stage directions simply read: “GEORGE mops up the mess of the evening throughout”. Read, it’s a detail easy to miss. But in performance, as the five characters sing their individual songs of – of what? Regret? Redemption? Transformation? George’s mopping tells us, whether we know N’laka’pamuxtsn or not, that they each are singing a song of mopping up the mess.
The performances were all impressive. I found it interesting to watch Lorne Cardinal, whom I remember from his time at the University of Alberta, now the almost-elder Canadian actor he has become. His Floyd is at the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum from his Davis on Corner Gas. Cardinal pulls off amazing work with emotionally difficult material. “Emotionally difficult material” is an absurd understatement: Cardinal has dedicated his performance to his parents, both survivors of the Residential Schools genocide. Years ago I met Cardinal’s late father briefly at a wedding. It was eerily startling to watch Cardinal fils becoming on stage the damaged man is own father so easily could have become. For a moment I saw the father on stage, the father who had been peaceful and happy on the one occasion I ever saw him, for a moment I saw that calm man tormented and twisted in the trauma of survival and memory.
Craig Lauzon as Mooch also achieves the transition from the comic to the tragic between the beginning and end of the play with painful conviction. There was just one brief moment near the beginning where I thought Lauzon might have zoned out and just recited a line or two rather than being Mooch, but then, maybe I zoned out. Sera-Lys McArthur as Christine (and Anna) was beautifully ethereal in the dream sequences and beautifully urban in the real world. Her solo singing was dreamy and her “spoken word artist” Christine stuck in the Lytton Hotel bar was spot on. Michaela Washburn as June was suitably terrifying in rage and achingly tender in vulnerability. And Robert Benz as the Shum’ma barkeep, George was perfect as the jolly friend to all these damaged characters – as long as they kept their damage out of his bar unless it was being drowned.
But it feels a little stupid to be talking about the quality of the performances: I can’t imagine acting this painful material a single time, let alone night after night. This cast not only gets through it, they make it look, if not easy — it could never be easy — absolutely real. That in itself is a theatrical miracle.
The facts of the Residential Schools catastrophe must be made known to all Canadians, of that I am firmly convinced. Where the Blood Mixes in a production such as the one I saw this afternoon, makes the experience of the Residential Schools catastrophe just almost tangible to a Shum’ma like me. And that touch is terrifying and unforgettable.
See Where the Blood Mixes. And buy the play: it’s published by Talon Books. And lobby your local school board to have it placed on the English curriculum in high school. And the Social Studies curriculum.
Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring is being presented by Theatre Network at the Roxy Theatre until March 3, 2013.
Please see it, for the children who were taken, and that none will ever be taken again.