Young People’s Theatre presents Kaha:wi Dance Theatre’s The Mush Hole. Created, directed and produced by Santee Smith, this dance/theatre performance explores the intergenerational trauma of Canada’s Indigenous community resulting from the Residential School system. Though recommended for ages 11 and up, the presentation doesn’t pander or dilute, but approaches it’s subject with an intelligent and unflinching eye.
The Mohawk Institute, which provides the setting of this presentation, is the oldest Residential School in Canada. It was nicknamed the “Mush Hole” by the students. Mush, frequently infested with worms, was the staple food. The Institute was in operation in Brantford, Ontario from 1828 to 1970.
Two generations of Residential School Survivors are represented here, and we are shown how the dehumanizing effects of severe mistreatment, carried in the body and mind, can echo outward into a vast network of relationships. Set against a backdrop of projected images depicting the cold, unfriendly environments of the school, the dancers (Santee Smith, Jonathan Fisher, Julianne Blackbird, Raelyn Metcalfe and Montana Summers) convey the immediate and lasting effects of physical and emotional abuse.
There is sharp, thoughtful attention to telling details in the props and movement. There is a dreadful weight to the bricks and those bare, oppressively institutional rooms. In these environments, we catch brief yet intense glimpses into scenes of abuse, domestic dysfunction, and alcoholism—yet there is hope, too, in moments of human connection and healing.
There isn’t a single segment that doesn’t feel weighty and compelling, but two stood out for me as particularly impressive in their execution.
There is a scene set in a kitchen where, amidst a perfectly depressing Formica table littered with those old stubby beer bottles, a man (Fisher) and a woman (Smith) try desperately to relate to each other. Set to Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the alcohol, their pain and their learned violence prevent them from forging any comfortable intimacy. It is heartbreaking to see them claw and strain and yearn for more. And the clever use of the broken leaf extensions on the table is an amusing, thematically apt touch.
In another scene, Summers gives a riveting and brutal portrayal of a sexual assault. With breathtaking dexterity, he is able to wrench his body to suggest an attacker pulling at his clothes and dragging him across the floor. All the while, the image of a boiler room (favoured by the school’s predatory faculty for its noise) looms in the background—the rhythmic hiss and drone of the machinery reaching a fever pitch alongside his frantic movements.
The weight and veracity of the production is due, in part, to Smith’s rigorous process. The content was created in collaboration with Residential School Survivors; their continual input has grounded the piece, keeping it honest and authentic.
The Mush Hole is a work of astounding craftsmanship and compassion. There isn’t a single wasted moment—every object is significant, each gesture revealing. It caught me off guard and left me quite shaken.