The Toronto Theatre Review: Soulpepper/Native Earth’s Where The Blood Mixes
This was one of those ‘hard to take in’ and ‘difficult to let go’ experiences that happens sometimes when you see something so smart, dynamic, and meaningful in theatre. The number of metaphoric layers that are formed inside the first play written by Kevin Loring (Battle of the Birds) is utterly astounding. And Where The Blood Mixes feels ever so effortless, especially as it slowly dips its toes in the current. It swims in so easy, with the sounds of guitar, played by the talented sound designer, James Dallas Smith (Soulpepper’s Our Town) sitting on the sidelines, and merges with the mystical chanting of the opening refrain. The play projects us, casually yet wisely, into the deepest parts of our inner sanctuary, pulling us into the rough current with such simple force. Swimming and rotating in the emotional clarity of where two rivers collide, it’s no wonder that this 2008 play won a Governor General’s Award in 2009. It is also not surprising that Soulpepper Theatre, co-producing with Native Earth Performing Arts, decided to bring this subtle and beautifully intense play to the stage. For that, we should be eternally grateful.
Directed with a straight-forward ease by Jani Lauzon (Shaw’s Rope), Where The Blood Mixes pushes forth the lived experience of those on that stage, mirroring, we are told, the experiences of the playwright. There is an unpacking that happens on stage, one that boils and churns around, most tenderly, the colonial oppression of the Indigenous communities in North America and the intense impact that the residential school system, something we are hearing more and more about, had on the community as a whole. It’s breathtakingly hard to take in at certain moments in this lovingly caring play, but as displayed here, the insistence to take notice is as naturally spoken and understandable as one could hope for. The generational trauma is undeniable, and painful to bear witness to, but it never feels forced or pushed upon.
When the discovery of the mass grave yards at the sites of these residential schools started to become big news here in Canada (and in the U.S.), my mother, a Mohawk woman who lived and grew up on a reservation in Ontario, turned to me and said, “I wonder if that is why my father, your grandfather, moved us off the reservation so suddenly one day when we were kids.” It’s a striking narrative (to say the least), one that suggests a universal fear of a parent, my mother’s parents; the taking of a child. But while watching the deep gutteral pain that resides inside of this play and its characters spill out, I couldn’t help but let that terrifying idea float through my brain. I listened to these damaged and traumatized souls try desperately to navigate the turbulent waters where those two rivers collide, and wondered about the sudden move my mother experienced, and what it might have saved her from. The outcome of her life, her family’s, and mine (if I ever even came into existence) would have been forever altered if maybe she was one of the many children in that reservation “who got took.” The land underneath my feet felt unsteady as I wrestled with the idea.
The play floats around a similar but decidedly different playing field. Around a drunken daydream by the play’s central figure, Floyd, who is deeply portrayed by the fantastic Sheldon Elter (Citadel’s Evangeline). He was one of those children “who got took“, along with his now-deceased wife; his difficult and troubled sidekick, Mouch, deviously well played by Craig Lauzon (TPM’s Drawer Boy); and Mouch’s girlfriend June, organically and emotionally delivered by the wonderful Valerie Planche (Citadel’s The Crucible). They are living out their existence, post-trauma, battling with the pain while trying to survive, find rebirth, and reconnection in this troubled dangerous land that was once their own. They act out, and drink too much beer at a bar owned by a well-meaning George, played solidly by Oliver Dennis ( the amazing “Slings and Arrows“). They are trying the only way they know how to save “the world one beer at a time” alongside the people they are forever attached to somewhere deep inside a well of love, need, and pain. They stumble and fight with each other, as a way of doing battle their internalized demons, maybe in a way to feel like they can take back some internal power. But there is never enough beer to save them. Or maybe there is only too much, and not enough bridging from the spirit world to the land of the living.
But it all comes to a head when Floyd’s daughter, Christine, tenderly played by Tara Sky (NAC’s Nativity) who was taken away from Floyd after his wife, her mother, died, asks to come back and reunite with her father. It happened so long ago, not for the same reason the four were taken, but because of what those residential schools did to the children’s spirit, and to their ability to find a peaceful connection in their adulthood. The trauma of Christine, her mother’s death, and how it impacted Floyd (and the whole lot of them, including Christine) when Christine was a child floats up from the surface, mixing the dirt and muck in almost a violent manner. It can’t be submerged anymore, especially with Christine standing there asking to be seen and heard. A reckoning and an acknowledgment of that very generational trauma that seeps through them all needs to be looked at and unpacked for there to be any journey forward.
The pain and the hurt of those stories told are felt throughout the space, and on that simplistic, but somewhat clumsy and overwrought set designed by Ken MacKenzie (Soulpepper’s Jesus Hopped…), with well-formed costuming by Samantha McCue (Stratford’s I Am William) and lighting by Arun Srinivasan (Crow’s MixTape), the play finds its way into our head, delicately and surprisingly. The projections, designed by Samay Arcentales Cajas (Roseneath’s Mischief) enhance the very instinctual symbols that swim inside Where the Blood Mixes, delivering a message of peace and turbulence within. The feeling is strong, and emotionally powerful, digging in even when the furniture and the hanging letters gets in the way. The tug of the current lies in this play’s simplistic, yet strong mystical journey, one that is guided by the smooth soundtrack delivered by musician James Dallas Smith. His presence elevates and expands the space. The sounds stir up the messy emotionality that tends to sink to the bottom of the river and rot. It’s a tense idea, but the stories of the river settle us, leaving us connected, even when overwhelmed by the pain and discomfort that exists inside and down below.
Where the Blood Mixes finds its way in beautifully, leaving its mark on our understanding and our shared pain. The layers and layers of symbols and metaphors are both dynamic and engaging, and they will not leave you as you walk out of the Soulpepper theatre. This is storytelling at its best, echoed in the strums of a guitar and in the heartbeat of those on stage. Talking about what happened at those schools and to the community over generations is the ultimate key to unlock and release the pain within down into the streams of consciousness that swirl at our feet. Playwright Loring is in essence, begging us to swim into that muddy water and dive down deeper and deeper together with these brave souls. He writes, “…people can become ghosts, hanging on to their old pain…Until they let go, they can’t grow.” Where the Blood Mixes asks us, most beautifully and poignantly, to be present with these damaged characters, to bear witness to their pain and trauma, to hear their stories so that the past haunting in the depths of that turbulent water can be released. I for one am eternally grateful to have discovered this play, and bear witness to this story, regardless of how many ghosts float up from the depths.