Puzzling Over The Peking Opera

I am not one to miss out.  How could I have never been to The Peking Opera?  I love the arts and have actively aspired to learn more about Chinese cultural traditions since I first taught at the Fuyang Bureau of Education twelve years ago.  At my daughter’s suggestion, I jumped at the chance to buy us tickets to see The Peking National Opera Company in Taipei .  The National Arts Centre is impressive and very fitting for viewing this ‘national treasure’.  We settled into our plush, red velvet seats, ready to be inducted into this art form.

At break time, the women beside us was thrilled that we returned after the break.

“But are you actually enjoying it?” she inquired.  We talked of the obvious strengths and Taiwan’s role in preserving this art form as part of their unique cultural history.

By the end of the performance, the woman beside us had been moved to tears, as had many others in the audience.  People jumped to their feet with a rousing standing ovation for the performers.  My daughter and I looked at each other and cautiously joined in with the polite response of good Canadians.  We clearly understood that we were missing a big part of the picture.

It was easy to appreciate the elaborate costumes and navigate the plot, even though the performance was in Mandarin.  It almost felt like a puppet show with stock characters and stylistic conventions like hand shaking that allow the audience to follow the storyline.  Stock characters that occur across different stories include:

sheng – the gentleman; dan – woman; jing – rough man; chou – clown with the mask

The talented musicians sat in a large box on stage playing traditional instruments like the erhu and allowing the emotion of the story to unfold.  The mime, dance, and acrobatics commanded attention.  The war scenes were a thing of beauty with the complex choreography and perfect timing.  We weren’t sure if the general was dead or imprisoned. If his love came to tell of his release from unjust captivity or visit him in the afterlife?   It didn’t really matter to our overall understanding of honour, strife and resolution.

It was the vocal performance that proved to be the biggest challenge to my daughter and I.  It was so far outside of anything that we had experienced before and defined as beautiful.  Particularly the very valued and extremely high vocal range of the dan was met with reluctance on my daughter’s part and a stifled cringe on my part.  And yet the response of the people around us revealed that we are outside of a big secret.  Something meaningful had transpired and the meaning remained elusive to us.  What is the trick to unlocking the mystery?  What background experiences or knowledge is required to understand the significance and beauty of the performance?

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Weaving Together the Stories of Reconciliation

Latash Maurice Nahanee performed his first national premiere on Thursday night as part of the cast of Weaving Reconciliation – Our Way.  It is presented not only as a play, but also as a cultural encounter, written by Renae Morriseau, Rosemary Georgeson and Savannah Walling with contributions from the cast, knowledge keepers and partnering communities.  I was honoured to be a witness to the stories that unfolded.  The pre-show weaving demonstration, a metaphor for the play, was the focus in the middle of the circle when you enter the room, which later becomes the stage.  The stories of the struggles of one Indigenous family unfolds in the centre of the circle.  They are supported by four relations, arranged like compass points around the stage, from the past, the present and the future.  Their voices have an ethereal quality and speak to their friends and relatives, ready to support the tormented soul of the characters that weave in and out of the spotlight.  Just when the pain and tragedy of the story became too overwhelming, in enters the Trickster, Sam Bob, with his hopeful, young sidekick.  This character has a big physical presence with a lightness of spirit and sharp wit which mirrors the comedic element in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

The sharing of the stories, intertwined with other stories, intertwined with past injustices, intertwined with other injustices, give light to the complexities of the process of reconciliation with Indigenous families.  The struggle and the promise of moving forward is a testimony to the resilience of Indigenous people emerging beyond the constricting yoke of residential schools, systemic racism, dislocation from support structures and pain.  Part of the hope felt at the end of the play comes from the characters moving forward towards reconciliation with family, with history and with a stronger voice to recapture the power over their own lives.

The power of good theatre is the capacity to draw us into the story and help us to empathize with the characters.  Watching the play, I believed that each story represented the lived experience of each actor.  Their intensity of emotion was palpable.  The story of the experience of Indigenous people in Canada belongs to them and their story of reconciliation belongs to them.  How that story intertwines with our individual story and our colonial past is defined by us.  Latash has been a mentor and a friend in helping me on my own personal path towards understanding and reconciliation.  We met “many moons ago” when we were both working in Coquitlam.  Latash was an Aboriginal support worker and I was a teacher at a middle school.  Some of our shared students were some of the most vulnerable in the district.  Latash was masterful at stepping back from judgement and accepting where these kids were and providing much needed support.  He helped me to begin to understand the complexity of supporting these young people as they tried to forage a new path that was far beyond the scope of learning to read.

Latash invited me to be the sponsor teacher in a cultural exchange program with indigenous students in the Coquitlam School District and indigenous students who belonged to a Friendship Centre in Ottawa.  These students came bubbling with enthusiasm to seek out understanding of their cultural roots.  Students spent time as a large group in both Vancouver and Ottawa.  It opened up new world of experiences, cultural learning, and access to history not included in my classes at elementary school, secondary school or university.  As the sponsor teacher, I was in charge of expectations for behaviour, timelines and safety.  This was my first glimpse into the challenges that come with the role of principal.  It was also my first understanding of my role as the “one outside” who carries a completely different frame of reference and experience within Canada.

Latash, helped me to grapple with the notion that my path towards reconciliation was my own.  Learning the history was not enough.   Looking to the indigenous community to reconcile on their own was not a viable option.  Feeling guilty wasn’t the point.  The discovery that residential schools existed in Canada, let alone in my lifetime was as much of a shock as the dawning realization that Canada was not the champion of the Universal Declaration of Rights and Freedoms that I had believed.  The initial defensive move was the desire to distance myself from any responsibility and create a rationale for unacceptable decisions.  The dawning realization was that the decisions made and perpetuated throughout our history could only have been motivated by a belief in cultural supremacy and monetary gain.

Our challenge is to decide to open our minds and hearts to the stories and weave a new chapter that is based on a reconciliation of the past, and lay a new foundation based on  respect for basic human rights and freedoms.   It is to ask questions.  How does one woman decide hitchhiking is her only option and no one ever sees or hears from her again or knows what happened to her?  How does that happen once, let alone hundreds of times?   Why do indigenous people struggle to graduate?  Represent such a high number of the prison population?  Suffer from high rates of addiction?  As Latash aptly describes, Canada for indigenous people “is like the albatross that was hung around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.”  Resilience will be the story of the Indigenous people in reconciling within their families, communities and Canada.  The story of the reconciliation of “a settler” such as myself, is still to be written.  It will be a journey and it will be woven with a myriad of other stories.  It will be a story of hope and of justice.

My advice.  Go see the play.  It’s in Vancouver for another three days, then off to Pentiction, Toronto and Winnipeg.  It may make you cry.   It will make you think.   It will make you hopeful.  And surprisingly, it will make you laugh.