The fact of Indigenous performers taking over such a site of British colonial culture as Toronto’s Fort York has a wonderful power to it. Last summer (2017), Red Sky Performance debuted their magical exploration of the Anishinaabe “seven fires” legends, Miigis, on the Fort York grounds, and the triple juxtaposition of nature, the colonial military buildings, and the 21st-century urban skyline gave the piece an extra resonance that pulsed through the audience.
Jumblies Theatre’s Talking Treaties Spectacle, the latest version of which played at Fort York from October 4 to 7, is a community-oriented theatrical project that uses the Fort York setting as a launching pad for a relaxed exploration of the so-called “Toronto Purchase” and related treaties, largely from the point of view of the first people to live in this area. In Jumblies' hands, the project is an engine for community engagement in our history – from the urban neighbourhood members who take part alongside the organizing professional artists, to the core company of young Indigenous performers who take on most of the roles, to the larger community represented by the audience who come to experience the spectacle. For this is not so much a “show” as an event; a mostly light-hearted way to engage with ideas and historical facts that should be much better known about the founding treaties of our city and country.
While not a musical, music does play a part in the bookending of the event, with songs sung by a volunteer community choir anchored by one professional singer and several musicians, and with the live music (backed up with recorded elements) that carries the audience from spot to spot around the Fort as the spectacle unfolds. As this project continues to grow, it would be nice to see the role of music being expanded or made a bigger, bolder element of the whole.
The young Indigenous performers who took on most of the roles, though all of varying levels of experience, were clearly engaged in their passion and enthusiasm for the project. Jill Carter and Jesse Wabegijig, in the roles of Mohawk powerhouse Molly Brant and her spouse Governor William Johnson, were the strongest actors, though not appearing substantially until about halfway through, when they gave us the most satisfying chunk of history in an extended scene of Johnson and Brant’s preparations for the great gathering of 24 First Nations for the signing of the Treaty of Niagara in 1764.
Part of the fun of the event was being tossed between snippets of historical events and Indigenous reaction to those events, all of it with an irreverent symbolic simplicity – the “purchase price” for Toronto including brass kettles, mirrors, lace hats, and bottles of rum being tossed into a pile, for example, or later, the trade price in number of beavers for various settler products seen tangibly as large stuffed beavers merrily tossed onto the Fort York green.
Was this really a play or musical? No, but it was, as promised by Jumblies, a spectacle – and a fun way to literally walk through some of our local and national history. Rather than a professional “show”, this was a lighthearted community event that performed an important role in bringing history to life in our current consciousness, with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.
Jumblies Theatre’s Talking Treaties Spectacle was presented from October 4 to 7 at Fort York, Toronto.
Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.