Children of God

Citadel Theatre, Shoctor Stage
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
March 3 to 24, 2018



There’s all kinds of good news about the Citadel Theatre’s latest offering, Children of God.

It’s a very good piece of theatre.

Causes do not overwhelm characters.

The plot carries itself admirably, never devolving into polemics.

The acting, singing and music is of the highest standard.

It does what “issues” theatre is supposed to do – presents its cause without losing its audience through too-much pounding upon our heads.

All of which is an immense relief.

The issue of Canada’s residential schools, where indigenous children were collected and sent for both education and assimilation from 1831 to 1996, has rightly been front and centre in Canada since the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

Corey Payette’s musical play – centred on six indigenous children who’d known no other life but the harshness of a residential school run by an abusive, cynical priest and a well-meaning but misguided nun – is one of the first pieces of performance art to tackle the subject.

My fear, going into any “issue” show, is of an overwhelming concentration on the cause. 

When causes masquerade as characters, plays become nothing more than a vehicle for some message, be it political, religious, what have you. In such shows, characters tend to be one-dimensional and boring, plots are clumsy, and playwrights start with the premise that the audience must be educated in the moral righteousness of the cause.

Payette’s show – and it truly is his show as the writer, composer, lyricist and director – is about the children first, these six children, and how they cope with the miserable situation in which they’ve been placed, from which there is no escape. 

At the same time, there’s a universality of miserable circumstance as a deeper theme – how the wretched, morally-depraved priest and the well-meaning nun are also trapped in circumstance, how circumstances of the past can haunt individual behaviour for decades upon decades later.

The plot itself is strong – a tough but compelling story of the children, how they cope, what they do to escape, even temporarily, this alien world into which they have been thrown with no respect for their own individuality or for the culture into which they were born.

Payette successfully interweaves past and present, uses allegory, metaphor and symbolism carefully and with respect. The live instrumental music – viola, cello, guitar, and keyboards – is a tremendous asset to the timbre and emotional texture of Children of God, as much an eloquent voice as music itself.

The casting is superb – it is tough enough to find musical actors capable of tackling the light-hearted Mamma Mia (playing the next stage over in the Citadel complex), let alone find actor/singers linked to indigenous people’s culture with the appropriate look, cultural understanding, acting chops and the vocal talent to deliver Payette’s demanding score in a fully professional way.

This outfit could handle everything Payette the composer, playwright and director threw at them.  Special kudos to Dillan Chiblow and Cheyenne Scott as Tommy and his sister Julia, around whom the plot revolves, and Sandy Scofield as their mother Rita who plays a small but crucial emotional role.

Children of God can be tough sledding.

But with the powerful, realistic script so well brought to life, the audience at every performance of Children of God leaves with a much deeper understanding, a visceral understanding thanks to the power of art, of what took place at the residential schools … and why all the healing and sensitivities and continual reminders of “being on Treaty Six land”  are necessary in the ongoing reconciliation between Canada and its indigenous peoples.

Children of God makes Payette, as writer, composer, researcher, lyricist and director, a force to be reckoned with in Canadian performance art, especially bringing First Nations’ stories and culture to the mainstream.

I suspect Children of God is just the beginning for Payette, with possible masterpieces to follow.

Payette’s new musical – co-written with Children of God associate director Julie McIsaac – opens in Vancouver in May. Les Filles Du Roi – of individuals within the 17th century Mohawk/Quebec French colonialist relationship, tantalizes the imagination as to what this team can do to illustrate such an important chapter in Canadian history.