What Do You See?

On a recent trip to Colombia my sister kept repeating, “We have lost the art of conversing, and therefore no one remembers anything anymore. No one knows the history of the peoples and the places we live in.”

“To converse” is an intransitive verb. It answers not the what or the whom, but the where, when, how, or for how long. The word itself means an exchange of thoughts and opinions.

I am hungry for conversations in theatre. I crave creators who risk, whose goal is to fight against “smart dialogue” for actors to regurgitate. I yearn for works that think of the audience as a partner in the conversation. Where there is no manipulation. Where the phrase “What is the payoff for the audience?” is erased. I understand the colonized world in which we create. I am part of it. Although I think I can rise above it, I still accept, unintentionally, its business model: its narrative of the truth and its rules of where, when, how, and for how long.

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools is described as a concert and a conversation, a meeting place between two people and between the North and South of our country. I see it as a conversation between two or more artists who want to get to know each other in a meaningful way. Where the personal is the political. I see a bold, moving, provoking, performative experience. I see it as an invitation to converse. I see it as an opportunity to reflect on my own life and work.

Performer Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory expresses her delight in working on a piece in which she is not expected or asked to “play” an Inuit. This feeling resonates deeply within me, at this juncture of my personal life and artistic development, for similar reasons. I am a cultural by-product of this place we, the settlers, now call Canada. I am a guest in this land. I am an immigrant. I am an “other.” I am an ally. I am considered a culturally diverse artist. I can never simply be “artist,” or even a person, without being stamped with a definition. Although I love words, I detest definitions.

In theory the phrase “cultural diversity” can also refer to having respect for each other’s differences. The reality is that the task of understanding differences is always too much work for the dominant culture. Is it really a terrifying proposition? The default method of dealing with all of us is management: to put us in one box that fits all. Boxes are very convenient. They are easy to pack, to label, to ship, to use and discard. On paper, boxes can also be checked with a simple X. The settler’s mind is appeased, and they can go home believing they have done their piece, fulfilled the quota. But do we know who the people behind the X in the box are?

As a Colombian-Canadian – there goes another bloody definition – as Bea, I have been colonized and have also, unintentionally, colonized. (The roads in the Americas are paved with unintentionalities.)

Okay, let’s talk about you and me. In this era of reconciliation, we all want to be the “good people.” Who wants to be bad? An actor who played all the bad guys in Hollywood once told me, “I don’t have to play the bad guy. The words and actions of the character do it for me.” This is one of our problems: we always want something or someone else to do it for us.

We inundate our First Nations organizations and colleagues with questions on how to do it right. We politely demand that they give us a set of instructions on how to be good. And with the mere action of asking, we feel as if we have been through confession. (By the way, I have also been colonized by religion. Can’t avoid the references.) After we dump our sins onto someone else and we receive the penance – and recite a few Ave Marias and Padre Nuestros in my case – the guilt is gone, and we can go back to our old ways.

We recite land acknowledgements, even in places where no Indigenous artists are ever part of a theatre’s season. I ask others… NO, I ask myself, Do I even know what I’m acknowledging? Do I have a physical, emotional, and spiritual map that allows me to connect and understand these words within my body? Have I taken the time to get to know this place, this land, these peoples who host us? What is my responsibility to this place? Where do I get my information about the history of Canada? Do I know the truth? And what do I do with that knowledge? Do I go and see a play and feel I have done all I can do?

Colonization is as deadly as addiction. The first step is to recognize it. And then, you have to change yourself, by yourself, from the inside. Yes, beating an addiction lasts a lifetime. It takes hard work, belief, commitment, and the willingness to face your dark side, your unintentional side.

Perhaps works such as Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools, and the conversations that take place in the black box, can do the kind of work we normally assign to support groups. Safe places where we can begin to acknowledge and take responsibility. Spaces where we can learn about the other and ourselves. Landscapes where no one or nothing is more than anything else. Mental states where we can begin to acquire tools by seeing.

In Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools I see Evalyn Parry – an open, honest, generous, and talented artist. I see Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory sharing her love and knowledge of a land she knows and feels in her bones. I hear the reverberating sounds of Cris Derksen. I see the moving paintings of Elysha Poirier of a landscape unknown to me. I see Kaitlin Hickey melting world and the chance for transformation, I see Rebecca Picherack in light and shadows, and I see the determined walker Erin Brubacher traversing territories.

I see exceptional storytellers that remind me that conversing can still be an art.

I see North and South.

I see Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, a place where these conversations can take place.

I see a community of like minds wanting to find ways through.

I see a beyond.

And I see myself, a woman, without definition, sharing these thoughts.

photo by Jeremy Mimnagh