bug: an invitation to not look away

I was invited to respond to the play “bug,” performed and created by Yolanda Bonnell with the manidoons collective, and co-presented by Theatre Passe Muraille and Native Earth Performing Arts. I want to share that response here.

Bees, spiders…

bug tells the story of The Girl, an Indigenous woman we follow from her childhood into adulthood—a journey with abandonment, child apprehension, abuse, and addiction. We also meet manidoons (Ojibway for bug) and The Girl’s mother.

I see The Girl as many Indigenous women. Women who were taken as children, and whose children are taken. Women whose sisters, mothers, aunties are disappeared or murdered. Women who are loved and celebrated by their communities, but who are treated as worthless by the greater public. Women who laugh and cry with the tenacity and richness of their ancestors.

Beatles, silverfish…

The story reveals itself in circular motions, like the bridge threads of a spider’s web, as The Girl talks and tries to remember, and as the bug character of manidoons, the manifestation of trauma and addiction, hunts her throughout. Bonnell’s shift into manidoons is a drastic physical transformation, aided by the simple and brilliant costume design of a hood beaded with large eyes that flips over her head in one quick movement. As The Girl, those big bug eyes rest on her back, always looming.

If you’re Indigenous, the older mother character will be familiar to you. An edgy, funny, haunted woman with a rez accent, telling stories, smoking cigarettes, cracking jokes, and fighting back. To me, in this story, she is a concurrent present and a possible future. She is separation, whereas The Girl is trying for unification.

The performance is powerfully physical: Bonnell rolls, reaches, rises, at times with poetic, dance-like movements that echo her words. The movement helps ground the heartache of the story, and it reminded me to stay grounded in my own body as I was moved by the play’s tension, emotion, pain, and tenderness.

Ants, roaches…

The hard truths of the play and the compassion with which they’re told are an invitation to see the person at the centre of those experiences. For non-Indigenous audiences in particular, bug is an invitation to humanize an ubiquitous colonial “drunk Indian” story, a story they have perhaps not had the opportunity to humanize before; an invitation to witness, to look, and to not look away.

Many theatre experiences have us, the audience, sitting in rows in the dark, seeing only the stage and maybe the silhouettes of each other’s heads. bug is performed in the round and the lighting frequently illuminates the faces in the audience. I was struck by this. Struck that while we were being called to witness we were in turn witnessing each other—to be accountable to each other and to hold each other accountable. I felt it strongly: you are seeing what I’m seeing, and I see you. We are in this together.

Ladybug, firefly…

bug, directed by Cole Alvis, was presented at Luminato in 2018—and nominated for four Dora Awards that year. It has been performed across the country to many audiences, but much of the press during this run has been focused on the collective’s request that only reviewers who are Indigenous, Black, or people of colour critique the work. It’s telling that drawing that line has sparked so much interest, and in many cases, draws attention to the fact that media outlets don’t have enough—or any—relationships with IBPOC theatre reviewers.

I’m not a theatre reviewer, and I realized before going to the performance that I had self doubt about the validity of writing my response down. In turn, I realize that self doubt is in direct correlation to the lack of IBPOC voices in media—representation matters! Seeing Bonnell alone on stage—an Indigenous woman, powerful, beautiful, and literally in the spotlight—was very meaningful to me. I did not anticipate that being invited to share my thoughts would be meaningful, too.

bug carries wisdom to impart to people of all backgrounds. Toronto, you can see it at Theatre Passe Maraille until February 22.

Photograph by Dahlia Katz

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