Empowerment. Engagement. Authenticity.

VocalEye Review - Skyborn

Shawn and Kristy during the Skyborn touch tour holding a paddle, decorated with abalone and carved with a wolf's head.

When I first read the description of Skyborn on the pUsH International Performing Arts Festival website, it was the fairy-tale connotation of the words that snagged me. After all, hungry ghosts, grandmothers and wolves, rivers of stars – is that not the stuff of childhood fantasies? Even the bit about Musquiem heritage spun romanticized visions in my mind, despite my adult knowledge of the plight of the indigenous peoples in Canada.

"This is not what I was expecting," an elderly Caucasian woman commented beside me as we sat in the row just beneath the balcony of The Cultch Historic Theatre on February 1, 2020. "I read the title and thought it was a story about outer space."

I swallowed a chuckle and offered a brief synopsis of what I'd read on the website, careful to veer more Pocahontas than Red Riding Hood.

Even after almost 29 years of living in Canada, I am embarrassed by my sparse understanding of Canada's First Nations. Canadians – and I ashamedly admit to referring to Caucasians here – must surely have been learning this stuff since kindergarten, right? I myself had grown up in Trinidad and Tobago where we learned that the Spaniards had descended upon the island and all but obliterated the native Caribs and Arawaks. End of story.

"That large basket," I said to the woman and pointed to the stage and the 8-foot masterpiece of weaving, "is showing home videos from the protagonist's childhood. During the play, different sets will be projected onto it."

What a creative way to – for lack of a better word – reconcile culture and time, I thought.

"Wow," the woman murmured, sounding no less mystified as her eyes swept over the set. "I wouldn't have known." She turned back to me. "How do you know all this?"

For a split second, I entertained the idea of playing clairvoyant or well-studied scholar.

Then my advocate self tapped me on the shoulder, cleared its throat loudly.

After all, I am the Vice Chair of VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society.

"My boyfriend and I," I gestured to Shawn on my other side, "are visually-impaired. We're getting live descriptions of the set and characters through an earpiece. The describer, Ingrid, is up there." I pointed to the balcony.

The woman's mouth opened, closed, opened again. No words came out.

The lights dimmed and I sat back to enjoy the show, barely restraining myself from giving her hand a comforting pat. An honorary witness, Wally Opal, was in the audience. I wondered if the woman beside me understood the significance of his presence.

Now I wonder, although I smirked at the time, if I myself understand the entire significance.

Quelemia Sparrow, the protagonist, was unlike any fairy tale princess I'd ever seen. Following Ingrid's cues through my earpiece, I noticed, for the first time, the lengths of rope strung from stage to balcony.

Woven cedar, Ingrid had explained in the pre-show notes.

It had made me recall the described art tour I'd gone to a week before, where Shawn and I had been able to hold strips of cedar in our hands as we listened to the labours of love and tradition involved in indigenous weaving.

But Quelemia was consumed by pain, not love, as she wrapped a rope around her waist. She ranted, in fact, about the fine line between the two. Then she was gone, snatched from the world of the living by a tongue of liquid flame.

There is something both comical and heart-wrenching to see Quelemia, scared and prostrate, being cleansed with cedar boughs as Grandmother Wolf prepares her for a journey of literal soul-searching morph into a coke-snorting, paparazzi-hounded model in Tokyo. And, here and there, she zips back to that little ancestral blue house crammed with memories of love…and pain.

Outings to the creek. Her father being beaten in a residential school.

Is this what colonization has done? Stripped humanity of its purity and innocence and faith all in the name of power and popularity and profit?

I think about how proud I am of my Canadian accent. "I can't be an ESL Instructor and not dspeak proper English," I often say.

And, yet, something inside my heart yearns when I hear a Caribbean accent on the bus or in the market or on television. Sure, I can slip back into the dialect easily enough when I talk to my family. But even my best friend has commented that my 'Trini' accent is diluted now.

Diluted, but not erased. Not beaten out of me.

Your ancestors were beaten, I remind myself. Converted to Christianity and a British way of life.

How else does an indentured labourer step off a boat from India and breed descendants by the names Ernest, Rodney and Clive? How did my aunts and uncles, followed by my brother and myself come to be educated by the British and Presbyterians?

It's not something I consider often, if at all. I certainly don't live my life in the shadows of ancestral servitude and subjugation.

But some people, like Quelemia Sparrow and others from Canada's First Nations, will be bound, or at least scarred, by those chains forever. As Quelemia herself said, she now pays to study a language that her ancestors were once punished for speaking.

"What did you think?" I asked the Caucasian woman beside me after the show.

Her eyes were as wide as saucers. "When she started accusing us of destroying her people," she stammered, "I was shocked." Her eyes fell to the white cane I'd just unfolded. "So is your condition…was it from birth?"

"Yes," I said, unfazed by her overly sympathetic tone.

"You're so valiant," she gushed. "To be here…at the theatre…"

My advocate self tapped me on the shoulder, cleared its throat loudly.

Here comes my sighted guide. Stairs to navigate, a touch tour to get to.

This particular discussion could go on and on. I wanted to leave before she crowned me as inspirational.

I'm just another theatre-goer, after all.

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