Photo C/O Mush Hole Project
By: Drew Simpson
Without any lights on in L. R. Wilson’s Black Box theatre, it can be a dark void and clean slate waiting to be molded. Three school chairs sat staggered, two up front and one centered and backwards. On the attached desk were three dark-red bricks formed into a cross.
The chairs sat in front of three projector screens, one facing forward and the other two diagonally placed to enclose the space. A quote by John A. Macdonald calling for industrial boarding schools sat on the main screen. Projected images of the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School portrayed different rooms onto the screens.
The Mush Hole performance is a reckoning to express the depths of tormented realities faced within the Mohawk Institute without traumatizing members of the audience with lived experience. The project aims to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action.
Of the five characters, each represents a survivor’s story. They each have names, or as the Mohawk Institute identified children with, a number. Number 48 and 29 were Ernest and Mabel who met at the residential school and became father and mother respectively to number 34 and 17, Walter and Grace. The fifth character is number 11, the girl without a name or family, as she was a runaway from the Institute.
After some brief introductions by the director of Indigenous studies at McMaster and by Santee Smith, the artist producer of the Mush Hole Project, the lights that allowed the audience to find their seats dimmed into the darkness. And we, the audience, became part of the void as we watched their stories.
The show started with choking. Everyone was constantly choking because they were constantly silenced by the Institution. Another constant was starvation, as one scene clearly projected the mush they ate. At first it resembled oatmeal, but that breakfast dish does not call for maggots. The maggot-infested mush was all the children ate in the Institution, inspiring the name given to the institution by survivors as well as the title of the performance.
While the characters were often all within the same room together, they moved in lonesome. Often the characters mimicked trying to hug each other but never being able to actually touch the other person as if a force field blocked them.
There was an incessant longing to comfort one another which sadly was retaliated with violence. This violence was conveyed upon themselves in the form of slapping their own hands away, scrubbing at themselves or even upon each other as the children fought.
Smith explained that in such a prison-like atmosphere, survival and self-preservation become priorities over human connection. Agonizingly, all I could do was sit and watch siblings Water and Grace constantly reject each other’s tried comfort or condolences. Even when Walter needed it the most trapped inside a boiler room.
The introduction to Walter’s solo was a visual backdrop and sounds of steam and other sounds to set the tone of the boiler room. As every character had a solo in a specific room, this solo was gutting. He danced as if trying to escape and to stop whoever was stripping him. The solo was suggestive, but it was the fear, guilt and trauma in his eyes and his hands as they reached out during his dance that communicated he was being abused.
Every person suffered in the Institute. The girl labelled number 11, was lucky enough to run away, but it was suggested she did not fully escape. At the end of her solo, the screen showed her laid in the snow, her hair covering her face.
In another scene Mabel and Ernest sat at their kitchen table, playing popular 1950s music as Ernest drank and Mabel carefully pushed the chairs under the table, tapping at imaginary heads and smiling. Sometimes she motioned to spoon-feed the imaginaries in their seats. Ernest pulled and shoved the chairs away, urging Mabel to drink.
In the inescapable prison, Grace used her taught Christianity to cope. In one scene she loudly sang a gospel as number 11 and Walter rumbled and choked in their seats.
The show communicated multi-faceted torment, discussed the ideas of identity, self-hatred, inter-generational trauma, abuse and overall the effect of such a prison-like system that was the Mush Hole. Above all, it was conjoined stories of resilience for surviving every room and every lock and key.
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