God and the Indian is a hard-hitting, provocative look at the complex process of healing from trauma, and what happens when the abused meets the abuser.
God and the Indian has been staged only a few times since its creation. It premiered in 2013 in Vancouver with famed actor Tantoo Cardinal in the role of Johnny. It has since been performed in Toronto in 2015 and Sault Saint Marie in 2019. And beginning Feb. 16, it will be staged in Hamilton at The Players’ Guild.
Speaking recently with co-directors David Dayler and Connie Spears, they say the production is the result of an “organic” evolution at the Guild.
The play’s creator is Drew Hayden Taylor, an award-winning Ojibway playwright, journalist, humorist, and filmmaker who hails from the Curve Lake reserve near Peterborough, Ont. He has written two dozen plays. Many are comedies but God and the Indian is not. Taylor wrote it during a stint as playwright-in-residence at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto when the artistic director challenged him to write something serious.
Loosely based on Death and the Maiden by Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, God and the Indian explores the complex process of healing from trauma, and what happens when the abused meets the abuser.
As Hamilton’s oldest community theatre, The Players’ Guild has been in operation for well over 100 years and has been in its current location on Queen Street South since 1951. Its membership includes those who have been involved for over 50 years. Dayler, now in his middle 70s, recalls early acting roles at the Guild as a teenager. He now cheekily refers to many of its returning patrons as the “blue-rinse set.”
The Guild is a grand dame in Hamilton, yet it’s fair to say it hasn’t built its reputation to this point on the staging of particularly hard-hitting, socio-political fare. Asked to recall productions that may have been more provocative, Dayler says some of their patrons found Cabaret a bit “edgy.” Then there was The Day They Shot John Lennon, and maybe a few others. Dayler acknowledges that some of the Guild’s best-selling productions, including its latest one, Assisted Living, have offered pure escapism.
However, The Players’ Guild launched a diversity and inclusion portfolio a year ago, after Spears made a presentation to the board. It’s something she wanted for eight years. It’s been a “big step forward,” she says. There was nothing saying anyone was not welcome at the Guild, Spears says, but she knew they could do more. She is now the Guild’s diversity and inclusion rep and sits on the show selection committee.
Spears describes herself as a passionate ally. She became “obsessed” with the subject of residential schools and the search for the murdered Indigenous children, absorbing everything she could find from news articles to Tik Tok videos to a University of Alberta free online course. Outside the theatre, she’s an administrative assistant for the kidney urinary program at St. Joseph’s Healthcare. For this production, she’s been paired with Dayler, an experienced director and mentor.
Part of what made God and the Indian attractive was because, as a two-hander (a cast of two), it allowed the Guild to start small. Dayler says that the play is a “good doorway into” the residential school issue, but will be “work for everyone.” It’s uncomfortable, caustic.
In God and the Indian, we meet Johnny, a Cree woman and residential school survivor experiencing addiction and homelessness. While panhandling, she encounters Anglican bishop George King, whom she is certain she recognizes from the past. She follows and confronts him, wanting him to acknowledge the abuses he inflicted upon her and other children at the school. But are Johnny’s memories reliable? Have her recollections been distorted by the hardships she has undergone? Is the bishop guilty?
Dayler thinks the play “will challenge our audiences’ sensibilities.”
“We as theatre people need to challenge ourselves,” Spears says, and Dayler agrees.
The role of George, the Anglican bishop, was relatively easy to cast. The directors were impressed by Michael Hannigan, long-time local actor and director. Hannigan has performed in a long list of productions at The Players’ Guild alone, including Cabaret, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, and Lost in Yonkers. He has also directed Guild productions of The Real Thing and Dial 'M' for Murder. Dayler calls him “incredibly intuitive.”
The casting of Hannigan faced a logistical challenge, however. He was already committed to another production at Dundas Little Theatre, Grand Horizons, which meant rescheduling weekend rehearsals. The run of that play ended Feb. 4, less than two weeks before God and the Indian opens.
As an experienced performer, Hannigan is quietly confident in his ability to hold space for two very different roles in close succession. Sometimes, he says, the nature of one can create a useful counterbalance to the other occupying his mind. Dayler is satisfied that Hannigan will follow through on his promise to “give it his all.”
But an even bigger problem loomed. Who would play Johnny? The production itself then came within a hair’s breadth of being cancelled. The president of the Guild was a day away from emailing the membership with the news. A replacement play had already been chosen.
The directors were committed from the start to having an Indigenous woman play the role of Johnny; they would not move forward otherwise. Spears and others worked to get word out to the theatre world and the larger community, including every Friendship Centre in southwestern Ontario. There were a few nibbles, but the theatre’s inability to offer a salary proved a barrier. As time went on, some well-meaning people tried to convince the directors that the production should go ahead without an Indigenous actor. Wasn’t the story larger, more important, than a single actor? Spears and Dayler remained adamant.
Then came a last-minute phone call: a member of the Guild community knew someone who was interested. Would they talk to her? Spears connected with Meagan Byrne, and they spoke on the phone for an hour that night. They invited her to the theatre and she read for them. Spears said Byrne showed something “raw and honest.”
Byrne is Métis. She is also an independent video game creator and digital artist. She has heaps of backstage experience and had played smaller parts in local productions like Da, And Slowly Beauty, and The Ghosts of 1812, but this would be her first lead role. It was a risk. They took the jump.
Meagan has gifted the production with the authenticity it required. In return, the directors say that Byrne has been a “joy.” While she acknowledges the weight of the role and a kind of burden of responsibility in playing it, Byrne is excited by the challenge presented in embodying Johnny.
In another stroke of good fortune, Byrne and Hannigan already knew one another and had worked together before. From that familiarity there was a sense of comfort and safety between the actors. When the two read together, they clicked right away. There was electricity between them.
In fact, according to Dayler, God and the Indian has “rallied the organization.” Both Dayler and one of the producers, Dan Penrose, mention an increase in volunteer activity. A usual weekday work session might involve a handful of people, and the newly retired feature strongly among the Guild’s volunteers. Around this production, however, there is an unusual sense of energy, and recent Monday nights have seen triple the number of willing volunteers.
Dayler and Spears say people seem to want to share in the magic and meaning behind this play. They mention, for instance, a young couple from Colombia. They live in Hamilton but work in Toronto. Despite this, they have shown up consistently to volunteer. They say they used to be involved in theatre in their home country.
Spears and Dayler are realistic: the company needs volunteers as well as a membership base. Audiences were slow to return after the pandemic. A community theatre needs ticket revenue but cannot deliver Mirvish-sized stories on a shoestring budget. While old standbys by Neil Simon and Norm Foster are sure bets, God and the Indian represents, perhaps ironically, a leap of faith.
To this, Hannigan urges ticket buyers: “Be bold.”
The Guild is not abandoning the old favourites but expanding its theatrical palate. Its spring production is Burn, a thriller combining a ghost story with a mystery. Seeing the purpose of theatre as being both “to entertain and educate,” Dayler says telling stories is their craft, and they have a responsibility to give voice to the “hurt and joy” present in our communities.
While she detests the oft-misused word, Spears acknowledges that so-called “woke” individuals will be most willing to take in the upcoming show. Those who are already aware, those who have been paying attention to the important issues of our society will be most receptive to its messages. But Spears says it’s possible to “underestimate patrons,” and it's an important pitfall to avoid.
Whether audiences respond negatively or positively, what Dayler and Spears hope for most of all is that the production spurs conversation. Co-producer Penrose, the cast; they all agree: They want people to talk about the residential schools and their survivors, to think about the children, lost and found, and to look for more information once the curtain falls.
As an added draw, playwright Drew Hayden Taylor is planning to attend the Feb. 18 performance.
NEED TO KNOW
The Players’ Guild of Hamilton, Inc. presents God and the Indian
Feb. 16, 17, 22, 23, 29, and March 1 and 2 at 8 p.m.
Feb. 18, 24, 25, and March 2 at 2 p.m.
Written by Drew Hayden Taylor
Directed by Connie Spears and David Dayler
Produced by Barb Brown and Dan Penrose
Featuring Meagan Byrne and Michael Hannigan
80 Queen St. S., Hamilton