Red Sandcastle Theatre’s Civilized Hits History Home Honorably and Intensely, Required Viewing by All

John D. Houston in Keir Cutler’s Civilized now playing at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, Toronto.

The Toronto Theatre Review: Keir Cutler’s Civilized

By Ross

It’s a fitting opening night for Civilized, the one-man show at the sweet Red Sandcastle Theatre (a perfect venue for this intimate show). The smart solid production chose wisely, scheduling the night most brilliantly on Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day that honors the children who never returned home and the survivors of Canada’s notorious residential schools as well as their families and communities. It was a much more meaningful evening than I was prepared for when I entered the Red Sandcastle Theatre but once I started to notice the sea of orange tee shirts in the audience, my friend and I realized that there must be a connection. And boy, was that an understatement.

I hadn’t read a thing about the show, as is my nature, wanting to be clear and uninhibited by expectations and internalized opinions, but I sort of wish, this time round, I had been a bit more emotionally prepared for what was to come. It was a journey, I will tell you that. An important one; vital, but also a difficult one personally, and I’m sure for many others in the audience that night.

Having the show open on this, the 2nd annual National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is a solidly clear and worthy demarcation. The production centers itself around that very tragedy, and is a significant and fitting public commemoration, in its own particular way, of the horrific and painful part of Canada’s history and also the ongoing impacts of residential schools on the Indigenous community. This essential play, Civilized, written with a clear intent by playwright Keir Cutler (Magnificence), is based on original primary source research on the Sir Wilfrid Laurier government, including a deep dive inside the Canadian Parliamentary Records, House of Commons debates, Department of Indian Affairs annual reports, newspaper archives, and the writings and reports of Dr. Peter Bryce. It feels very alive and on point, this research, and plays particularly well, especially in the hands of both actor and playwright.

The play’s focus and span of the work dig deep into the trenches of the time, and the results are utterly riveting and powerful. They take us back in time and find inventive and instructive ways of giving both necessary information and delivering an uncomfortable space for a certain determined government official to try to justify these schools’ existence to this modern-day audience. The purpose is clear, and the early warnings of what will follow are accurate and deserving.

Civilized is a hard show to take in, especially for this card-carrying Indigenous person, who has a mother who grew up on a reservation in southwestern Ontario, and tells her own story of moving off the reservation, suddenly, one day after school. She, and I, can only make an educated guess why my grandfather, her father, one day, out of the blue, decided he had to get his family off the reservation right away. I’m sure some pretty loud alarm bells were going off somewhere quietly on that reservation and, more importantly, in his head. He must have thought that his children might be part of the next rounding up. That they might be taken on their way home one day, snatched up off the street, and placed, without their consent, into one of those residential schools. And my grandfather, I imagine, was not going to let that happen to his family.

John D. Houston in Keir Cutler’s Civilized now playing at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, Toronto

Knowing that piece of familial history, and also imagining how horribly different life would have been for my mother and her siblings – if they even survived, the play Civilized is a very difficult monologue to sit comfortably through. But that is exactly the point. As directed with a clear vision and purpose by Paul Hopkins (Fringe Festival’s Teaching Hamlet) and performed strongly and intuitively by John D. Houston (Shylock; Underneath the Lintel), a member of Canada’s Métis nation, this one-man show executes its structure and intended function perfectly and powerfully. Houston’s character, a government official who had no political affiliation (although he is deeply in awe of former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, who was the leader at the time), walks us through the reasonings and rationale for forming these residential schools. Some of the words and phrases used, such as “savages“, are deeply upsetting to hear, yet, I believe, as important as ever to be discussed and learned from. This is a show to be experienced. A must-see, for everyone who wants to truly understand the hatred and white supremacy that was at the core of these schools’ and our country’s creation. It was not a pleasant evening of theatre, as there were many moments I could not look up from the ground at the actor on stage. But these words matter, and this is an important piece for us all to hear and take in.

The production notes state, “In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, the Chief Medical Officer of the Departments of the Interior and Indian Affairs, reported that the Indian Residential Schools of Canada were “dangerous to health” with “an almost total lack of ventilation with Indian boys and girls dying in overcrowded, unhygienic schoolrooms and dormitories.” The Canadian government was funding these institutions and clearly had an obligation to ensure they were properly run and safe, yet the government failed to act. Why?”

Civilized attempts most pointedly to answer that very question, resurrecting a fictional Canadian government bureaucrat from the past so that he, through the talented lens provided by Houston, can attempt to defend the indefensible. The old slogans reiterated by Houston burn, just as deeply when imagining that many of the people in power in Canada’s government thought this way about the indigenous people whose land they were stealing right from under their feet (and check out this piece I previously wrote titled “In Canada, Watching TVO’s “The Fruit Machine” Through Tears” about how Canada treated LGBTQ+ people – and a little about the residential schools found its way into the piece. – Our country’s history is not as lovely as we would all like to believe and imagine).

Houston leads us diligently through the history of these schools, embarking on a project that truly needs to be witnessed by all. My stomach churned up and around itself, listening to the justifications, in the same way, it started to make Houston’s own civilized character uncomfortable. A construct that works its way into our heads and somewhat softens the blows, although not completely. Yet, the word, Civilized, is well played, on all fronts. In its contentious use within the play and as a fitting, most powerful title for this important piece of theatre. I had wanted to frame it as “instructional theatre” but that construct feels belittling of what the play really does succeed most powerfully in doing and creating. Don’t miss this opportunity. Civilized is difficult and demanding, but should be seen as completely required viewing for all. Playing at Red Sandcastle Theatre until October 8th. For more information and tickets, please click here.

Please donate generously to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (www.irsss.ca) which provides essential services to Residential School Survivors, their families, and those dealing with Intergenerational trauma.

Some things you can do to help achieve reconciliation:

Read the 94 calls to action published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and encourage political leaders to follow through on them.

Research First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in your area to understand their history and contributions to society.

Read books and watch documentaries on the Native experience and the Indian Residential Schools.

Support Indigenous artists, performers, and musicians.

Donate to Indigenous charities.

Volunteer at an Indigenous non-profit.

Talk to an Elder in your community.

John D. Houston in Keir Cutler’s Civilized now playing at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, Toronto

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