Frozen River (nîkwatin sîpiy), a MTYP production presented by Young People’s Theatre, is a fable about personal and cultural reconciliation. Grandmother Moon (Julia Davis), who has witnessed all of the earth’s dramas unfold, tells us the tale of Wâpam (Keely McPeek) and Eilidh (Emily Meadows). Born on the same night under the blood moon, they first meet as eleven-year-olds in the 19th century, but a broken promise leads to seven generations of disconnection and resentment.
Eilidh and her family, forced out of Scotland by the Highland Clearances, are helped by Wâpam and her Native family to survive in the forest of what is now known as Manitoba. Wâpam agrees to spend a year learning the settler way of life from Eilidh and her family; in return, Eilidh promises to spend the following year with Wâpam and her family, immersing herself in Indigenous culture. Gradually, Eilidh looses interest in Wâpam’s teachings, belittles her knowledge and eventually breaks her promise entirely.
Seven generations later, in a school on the same land, Wâpam and Eilidh meet again as contemporary teenagers. Wâpam is cordial and communicative, but far less willing to invest in Eilidh this time around. Eilidh won’t make the effort to learn simple Swampy Cree words Wâpam tries to teach her. A featured point of contention is her self-absorbed and indignant response to the inconvenience of a week without running water due to some local frozen pipes. Wâpam’s reserve, by contrast, has been permanently without useable water for decades.
Co-written by Michaela Washburn, Joelle Peters and Carrie Costello, the play makes Wâpam and Eilidh vivid and relatable. In a way children can properly grasp, it examines real history as well as contemporary issues like the lack of clean drinking water for many Indigenous communities. The complexities of such situations are also addressed, acknowledging the humanity and nuanced circumstances experienced on any side of a given conflict.
The central image of the river (and of water pipes) is a clever metaphor. The state of Wâpam and Eilidh friendship is echoed by the flowing water, its freezing, breaking up and eventual thaw. Shadow puppets projected on a large circle screen help convey the sense of cosmic magic, of connection between souls across generations. When Eilidh finally keeps her promise, it feels direct and intimate despite the span of almost two centuries.
There is some charming on-stage puppet work as well. Eilidh’s little sister takes this form. My favourite was a turtle hand-puppet that figures prominently in the school scenes. Living with a turtle myself, I’m a sucker for any depiction of these creatures and was impressed by the accuracy of certain distinctive quirks.
Frozen River (nîkwatin sîpiy) has simple, evocative Indigenous design elements and endearing performances. At just under an hour, it is lean, efficient and committed to its themes, while providing ample comedic flourishes to entertain youngsters.