‘Material Witness’ pulls story threads together at Debajehmujig

The cast and director of ‘Material Witness’ included, from left, Cherish Violet Blood, Henu Josephine Tarrant, Gloria Miguel, Muriel Miguel, Penny Couchie and Donna Counteau. Each told stories intimately linked to their own personal experiences against a backdrop of quilts and other fabric art created in the accompanying Pulling Threads Fabric Workshops and Installation. photos by Michael Erskine

MANITOWANING – It would be hard to discover a more appropriate title for ‘Material Witness,’ a play/art installation that took place at the Debajehmujig Creation Centre on the evening of May 1. The production, brought to Debaj through the collaborative efforts of New York’s Spiderwoman Theatre and Aanmitaagzi, a multi-arts company based in the Nipissing First Nation, wove together the intricate threads of personal and individual women’s stories to create a fascinating fabric of violence and healing.

Accompanying the performance, and forming an integral part of its genesis and stage set design, was an art installation developed through a series of Pulling Threads Fabric Workshops that were held over the four years when the two companies developed the production. As theatre patrons wandered in to take their seats, fabric artists Sherry Guppy of Temagami and Nimkii Couchie of the Nipissing First Nation were there to greet and enlighten them about the project.

“It doesn’t really have a name,” said Ms. Couchie of the exhibit. “It’s just another component of the show. I guess it would be called the Pulling Threads Workshop installation.”

Ms. Couchie explained that the installation, and the many quilts that helped form the stage set, are the product of 23 workshops that took place before the performance. One of those workshops took place at Debajehmujig last year. The fabric creations are a physical legacy of the stories that women shared during those workshops.

Before the performers took to the stage, Debajehmujig’s Traditional Teachings Advisor David (Sonny) Osawabine welcomed the audience and made note that, due to the powerful and emotional subject matter that ‘Material Witness’ deals with and the potential for triggers causing attendees distress, there were wellness responders on hand in the lobby should anyone have need of support.

The play was a powerful rollercoaster of emotions, as the cast threw themselves into the fray with an unbridled passion that reflected the cast members’ personal connections to the stories being told. In fact, the cast consisted of many of the writers of the piece, as the stories told onstage were intimate reflections of the actors’ own experiences.

Nimkii Couchie of the Nipissing First Nation and Sherry Guppy of Temagami were there to greet and enlighten audience members about the Pulling Threads Fabric Workshops.

The ensemble included Cherish Violet Blood as Cholula Daisy Fence Post, Penny Couchie as Loouella Jean Finesse, Donna Couteau as Warrior Woman, Gloria Miguel as Du Tu Kapsus and Henu Josephine Tarrant as Entrance. Rounding out the writing crew in addition to the former were Ange Loft, Muriel Miguel and Carol Guppy.

‘Material Witness’ premiered in New York City in May of 2016 and the Debajehmujig performance was at the midpoint of the tour.

The choreography of the production wove its own tapestry to add to the power of the production, and the music chosen, from the bubble gum pop anthem ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ by the Go-Go’s through the contemporary ‘Til It Happens To You’ by Diane Warren and Stefani Germanotta to the lilting juxtaposition of the acappella rendition by the 92-year-old actress Gloria Miguel of ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart,’ was an inspirational match to the themes playing out on stage.

There was a homecoming of sorts in this production, as the director Muriel Miguel and her sister Gloria Miguel were two of the original cast of famed Cree writer Tomson Highway’s ‘The Rez Sisters,’ which was originally developed at Debaj in the 1980s.

Following the stage production before a packed house the cast and director came out to sit before the audience and take questions.

Asked about their inspiration for the play, Muriel Miguel cited her sister, who always insisted that she could “do anything you want.” The performance itself was dedicated to Spiderwoman founding members Lisa Mayo, Rosemary Richmond and Grace Valdez—as well as “all the murdered, missing and abused women and their families. We hold them in our hearts and they are an inspiration to us all.”

The silence in which so many of the stories of abused women are bound was also a key inspiration for many of the performers and writers. “Having so long not saying things about what happened in our lives,” said Gloria Miguel. “What women are doing, what men are doing, we have to talk about what to do about that. How we are to go about healing. When you live as long as I do you have to be healthy,” she laughed.

Refreshments in the lobby before and after the show included homemade tarts and coffee.