I’ve traveled Canada a fair bit – both with the troupe, and before. I’ve always thought I’ve got a good sense of the scope of the country, it’s personality. I know Canada, I thought. Even more so, now that I’m a part of Theatre of the Beat. We stay in people’s homes, we take part in conversations about crime with communities all across the country. It’s a privilege and a gift we don’t take for granted.
A couple weeks ago a friend of mine told me stories about her time living in a reservation in Northern Manitoba. The stories she told me struck deeply, and made me realize I don’t know this country of mine nearly as well as I thought I did.
I know a certain strata of Canada very well, but move beyond that, and my knowledge and experience gets hazy quick.
A couple weeks ago, we performed in our first jail – the Winnipeg Remand Centre. All our props were checked against a list, and we had to roll with the punches as more props than we expected weren’t allowed into the centre (a casserole dish? No way. A 2×4 with nuts and bolts sticking out? Go ahead!) We weren’t allowed our folding chairs, so we used the giant plastic blue things the inmates sat in while talking to their lawyers instead. The room was a bizarre polygonal shape that opened right into the airlock at the entrance – we didn’t see any of the jail except the entrance and our performance space.
After setting everything up and doing a cue-to-cue we settled in our chairs and waited for the prisoners to be let in. There were fourteen men from two cell blocks. They came in one block at a time. The first group chatted with us as they sat, and quickly quieted when the men from the second block came in.
As we moved to the back of the room to perform, some of the men were staring at the floor with their arms crossed, some were looking expectantly at us, and some were leaning over and whispering to their neighbours. Two guards stood in the back corners of the room with crossed arms and tucked clipboards.
We performed the play. After performing a play dozens of times, you get a feel very early on for how the audience will respond. Are they laughers? Do they make audible gasps at strong emotional moments? Do they quietly mutter to each other when they notice subtle connections in the script? The Winnipeg Remand Centre audience was silent. No laughter. Almost no mutters. No gasps.
But eyes on the floor became eyes on us, and by the time we took our bows, every man in the room was focused on the play.
Because there were only fourteen men there, I can close my eyes and remember them. I remember the sad and bitter man who said the play showed his experience perfectly. I remember his quiet mumbling comments that I could barely understand, the hard set of his body language. I remember the older man with grey hair and a big moustache. I remember his gratitude, his poetry when talking about the beauty of churches that welcomed him. I remember a young man from Steinbach talking about being welcomed because of his last name, but being driven away by the gossip that bounced back and forth behind his back. I remember the indigenous man talking about the racism he felt in the church even before he’d gone inside. I remember the young man in the front row who had a huge smile on his face as he told us he’d never seen a play before. I remember their applause and affirmation of Johnny’s performance, telling him that he ‘got it’, in his writing and performance of Phil.
I remember them standing up and walking out a door. We walked out a different door. They went back to their cells, and we packed up and went outside.
Our image of the country we live in has expanded, continues to expand with every community and prison we visit.
My Canada includes prisoners now. It includes people who’ve made mistakes – horrible mistakes that have consequences. But mistakes – criminal or otherwise – don’t stop us from being human, with everything that entails.
– Benjamin Wert