With a mandate to engage audiences with reconciliation through Indigenous playwrights and their stories, Reconciliation Theatre’s first production this past summer – True West by Sam Shepard – was received by audiences to great acclaim.
But as co-founder Tom Rokeby explains, Reconciliation Theatre is about much more than the message.
“We are interested in simply creating great theatre, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers working together,” he says. “Our theatre traditions have been segregated for far too long. We want to end that segregation and provide top-notch entertainment.”
Reconciliation Theatre emerged from a playreading circle established by Rokeby and Daniel Puglas in 2018, both of whom had been inspired by an elder college course at Simon Fraser University that proposed using Indigenous playwrights and stories for community engagement with reconciliation.
While the COVID-19 pandemic moved Reconciliation Theatre’s playreading circle to an outside venue on the South Wellington Art Farm, enthusiasm for these plays and the desire to see them produced was not dampened in the least. Perseverance led to the theatre group’s inaugural production premiering at Nanaimo’s OV Art Centre in July.
Rokeby and Puglas knew after the premier of True West that the group’s hard work had paid off.
The play by Sam Shepard examines the idea that what most Americans have been taught to want and value is all wrong.
“The support shown by other Nanaimo theatre companies was a good indication that we were onto something important and compelling,” says Rokeby. “We were able to produce a top-quality show, using local talent in an inclusive manner, and audiences supported that.”
Reconciliation Theatre’s follow-up production is a comedy titled Berlin Blues, written, Rokeby says, by “perhaps the most prolific Indigenous playwright on Turtle Island, Drew Hayden Taylor.”
Taylor is Ojibway from the Curve Lake First Nations in Ontario and an author of more than 20 plays; Toronto at Dreamers Rock, Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, and Cottagers and Indians have left their mark on the Canadian theatre scene.
In Berlin Blues, Taylor explores the nuances of life on his Anishnaabe reserve, and how that is changed when a German corporation offers to build a multimillion-dollar theme park devoted to Indigenous culture.
Themes of economic development and cultural commodification are explored with Taylor’s trademark humour that ranges from satirical to knee-slappers.
Under the direction of Tom Rokeby, the cast is anchored by Dan Puglas and Damon Mitchell, returning from True West. Rokeby adds in an email, “We are excited to have TheatreOne General Manager Jonathan Greenway join us onstage, along with Lisa Rokeby, who last appeared at Nanaimo Fringe in 2021. Emerging young actors Talela Manson and Ali Scott round out the cast.”
Actor Jonathan Greenway said in an email that it is “a true honour to FINALLY be able to perform in an arts organization that I feel aims to focus on the voices of the original storytellers of this land.”
Berlin Blues will have its first performance at the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) Wellness Conference at Tigh Na Mara Resort in Parksville at the end of September. Rokeby says the theatre company was honoured to have the FNHA reach out to the group after True West.
“They felt that our mission of bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous performers to produce quality theatre fit their community wellness mandate,” Rokeby says.
All of which, he feels, is the natural evolution of a group that gathered on a farm to tell stories together during COVID lockdowns.
Berlin Blues will be performed for Nanaimo audiences early in 2023.
Anyone interested in following Reconciliation Theatre, or getting involved as a performer, designer or technician is welcome to follow them on Facebook.
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