For their 100th Anniversary season, Hart House Theatre opened with a limited run of Encounters at the “Edge of the Woods.” Curated and Directed by Indigenous educator and artist, Jill Carter, this presentation utilizes the Indigenous practice of story weaving to address the uncomfortable history of Canadian settlement.
This is a collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous creator/performers. In sharing and dramatizing their own personal stories, they strive to shed light upon the legacy of colonialism, from both the traumatic Indigenous experience and from a newly empathetic, conciliatory settler perspective.
With a focus on testimonials, the company of 21 performers employ all manner of theatrical devices to explore and contrast Indigenous and settler experiences both past and present. There is an emphasis on structured and purposeful interaction between representatives of First Nations and settler descendants. The title of the work itself alludes to the sharing and healing that can occur in that space between cultures, and where human society and nature collide.
Land, as both property and life-sustaining resource, is a visceral and contentious presence throughout. As is the theme of rape, which looms over the work, drawing very clear parallels between physical, emotional and bureaucratic violations.
The work draws attention to specific treaties, the circumstances in which they were created and their lasting impact. In one funny scenario, this information is presented in the form of a class lecture. Trina Moyan, hamming it up as an obscenely arrogant professor, gives a very entertaining parody of privileged, white academia as she uses the course material as an opportunity to scoff at Indigenous grievances.
On an intellectual level, I appreciated the noble intention here, but didn’t find it particularly compelling. Many emotions are conveyed on stage, though few were evoked in me. It has a stilted quality—which often characterizes collaborative work that has been crafted around a social issue. It labours under the assumption that, because the issues are important and the intentions sincere, the material itself will be inherently dramatic and compelling.
At its core, one can sense the desire to disrupt the complacency of a colonial perspective, but the presentation itself isn’t particularly challenging. There is a greater sense of disruption in the various installation artworks that transform the lobby of the theatre—from a standard waiting area to a space where guests are prompted to question the systems that support our society, our understanding of land/property and to acknowledge such luxuries as safe drinking water.
There is a great need for spaces in which Indigenous creators can bear witness to their history and foster continued growth. Encounters at the “Edge of the Woods” suggests a healthy engagement with non-Indigenous allies. It is full of haunting and transformative potential, though it only awkwardly and haphazardly achieves any potency or lasting resonance.