In Conversation: Kim Harvey from Children of God
Children of God, a new Urban Ink musical by Corey Payette, makes its world premiere this week at the York Theatre. In this powerful piece, the children of an Oji-Cree family are sent to a residential school in Northern Ontario. Children of God is a story of redemption: for a mother who was never let past the school’s gate, and her kids, who never knew she came. Children of God offers a thrilling blend of ancient traditions and contemporary realities, celebrating resilience and the power of the Indigenous cultural spirit.
You were originally part of the workshop productions for Children of God, what has it been like to watch this production grow and take shape through the years?
I remember at a Cultch staff meeting, the question was asked “What is one of the most powerful piece of theatre you’ve ever been a part of?” I had just come back from doing the workshop in Kamloops and I had said Children of God. It was really powerful. It resonated with me in a way that only a few shows have.
Specifically in terms of the growth and development, I feel really lucky because we keep getting more. We’re getting an entire orchestra, we’re getting the time to invest in the characters, to really figure out who each and every character is. When you’re in a workshop, you’re getting it done as fast as you can; but in this process I feel really honoured to get to see all of the characters grow, to really get to know my character Joanna and figure out her track and her story.
Also the music. To see the development of the music, it’s already been so beautiful. It has been very special to be a part of it for a very long time and there is something very special when we talk about growth of seeing Indigenous people work together and be together. I just feel really lucky to spend time with Indigenous artists, because that doesn’t really happen enough; because the opportunities are not there. I think we’re all at the point now where we really want people to see it!
Can you tell us a little about your character in the production?
The main character I play is Joanna, she is a very young, 14-year-old Indigenous girl who is in the residential school. I have fallen in love with her. She is a joy to play because she’s earnest and has this youthfulness that as adults we don’t get to tap into anymore. She is a fighter. She’s not the brightest but trying so hard all of the time and I think she has a giant heart. I think Joanna is radically empathetic to what is going on and I think she’s a good representation of one story of what happened to one person surviving the residential schools. She’s also a survivor which I feel a deep sense of responsibility playing because there are so many survivors out there and Joanna is absolutely one of them.
At one point I saw Joanna as a victim, as I imagined what her track was as she grew up I thought, ‘Oh things don’t really work out for her, I’m not sure how well Joanna does in her life once she leaves’. And in this particular production I think that’s changed. I think Joanna not only survives but ends up thriving. I don’t know if it’s because of where I’m at in my own life or my own reconciliation.
In terms of Joanna, I feel the pressure because there are so many survivors out there and there are so many young people who didn’t survive. This is for the hundreds of thousands of children who are buried in unmarked graves and who will never be able to see this show and weren’t as fortunate as Joanna. So I feel honoured to get to play her. I kind of based her a little bit on my mom in terms of her surviving and thriving. So, it’s an honour in so many ways.
Can you tell us a little about the music in this show?
What Corey has done with the music is he has used it as a window and our opportunity to enter into the story. We can go there with the music.
The music is incredible. These songs are just beautiful… they absolutely move you and they hit you in your spirit and they stick with you. And I think that’s a really great tool for the audiences to leave with. If nothing they will leave with the music inside them, remembering how moving and beautiful it was especially around content that is so difficult.
It’s contemporary, it’s sometimes a bit pop-rock and then it’s also absolutely traditional in the sense that we have a hand drum and we have drum songs and Corey has melded these two sort of genres and artistic practices together to create something I don’t think this country has ever seen before.
He’s really is investigating what the evolution of Indigenous song sounds like. My dad used to say that we’ve always evolved our artistic practices. Our ancestors were innovators and they thought about things differently and so I think Corey is participating in an ancestral practice of what indigenous storytelling looks and sounds like. And I’m so honoured to be a part of it and witness him doing that and also that we get to share it with people. I just can’t say enough that I’ve never been a part of anything like it and I’ve never seen anything like it.
In what way do you feel that theatre as a medium is a powerful tool for reconciliation and conversation?
I have worked in social and child welfare, I continue to work in youth engagement, I’ve worked with government in community engagement, I’ve participated in Truth and Reconciliation forums, I’ve done youth empowerment websites and what still resonates and rings the truest and the strongest for me is theatre. That this medium is such a community interaction and on this particular show there is going to be a talkback every night. And to me that is going to be extraordinarily exciting.
You will leave an entirely different person. You will not leave the same person that you came into it. There is something about theatre especially in the creation process, of Indigenous people in a room every day for weeks, focusing on trying to find the truth of our history and how it is impacting the present. There are so many echoes and ripples of why theatre is so powerful and the performances are one aspect of it.
And in the age of technology with huge spikes of people feeling anxious and depressed and isolated and disengaged, this is the antithesis of that. And the fact that it’s a traditional practice to bear witness to a story. That everyone comes to see it is bearing witness to the truth of what has happened in this country. And with that information as a witness the responsibility is then to go and share what you know. Everyone who comes to see this show will become a witness and then an ambassador for understanding what exactly happened in our country and what is still happening. I’ve explored a lot of different ways of figuring out how I can help the community and I keep coming back to theatre. Because I still feel that it has the strongest impact.
It is for me where I’m supposed to be and the strongest tool we have to get people to understand what happened.
Someone said “Theatre is the strongest way to show another human being what it is to be a human being” and I absolutely believe that. It’s hard to deny a living thing in front of you.
By coming that is a way that you can help create that reconciliation, by participating, by bearing witness to the truth.
Is there anything else that you would like to say to the audiences?
I want to make sure that non-Indigenous people feel welcome. Because this show is for them. This show is for people who really want to understand why the present is the way it is. People need to see this. That the only way we are going to achieve real truth and reconciliation is by having the active participation of everyone to bear witness to this and I think that that is so important. We just need to honour the truth. And yes, this is a very dark and damaging part of our past but I think the only way we are all going to be able to move on from it is by understanding what happened. And that is what is going to happen when you see this show. It’s going to move you, It’s going to inform you, it’s going to show you how you can be empathetic… the impacts are still going on.
Because I think you will learn about intergenerational trauma, which I am a survivor of, and how that trauma stays with us. How Joanna, if she has children, what that trauma will do to her children. To all of the children who were at the school and I think people need to understand that, that the trauma is still very much present in us and we are working as hard as we can to figure it out, but we would really love some allies. I think coming to this show – that’s what you can do – you can help a lot of people by understanding the truth of the situation. And that’s why I feel so passionately about this show about seeing it about doing it… I just want to make sure as many people as possible see this show and this show lives because this is a really amazing way to participate in honouring the truth of what happened and is still occurring.
And the talkbacks – you’re not going to want to miss them. The talkbacks in Kamloops were lively and heartbreaking. You are going to bear witness to a story based on historical events but then you are going to have people standing up and speaking about their truths and sharing their stories and people getting angry and people feeling frustration and THAT is what we need more of we need to actually engage with each other and that is going to be exciting.
Our final song is not about finger pointing. It’s not about blaming anyone – we have to help each other to reconcile and remedy what happened and what all of our ancestors participated in… Corey has done a really magnificent job of ensuring that we can’t point fingers and continue the hate because then it is a vicious cycle of what happened. We’ve got to rise above and I think it’s empowering when you see the show to see how you can be an active ally.