In 2004, Marie Clements received the Canada-Japan Literary Award for her play Burning Vision (2003), also nominated for six Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards. Burning Vision is an impressionistic drama about Aboriginal miners in the Northwest Territories who were told they were digging for a substance to cure cancer, but instead were helping to build the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 1930, Gilbert and Charles LaBine staked a claim for high-grade pitchblende near Cameron Bay on Great Bear Lake, in the Northwest Territories. When this Eldorado claim began extraction procedures, Déné men were hired to transport the ore and ferry it to Fort McMurray. In 1941, the U.S. government ordered eight tonnes of uranium from Eldorado for military research purposes. In 1942, the year the Canadian government bought control of the mine, the U.S. government ordered 60 tonnes of Port Radium ore. The first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico on July 16th, 1945. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

In 1960, the first Déné miner died of cancer in connection with the Eldorado minesite. As Burning Vision reveals, it wasn't until 1999 that the federal government signed a commitment to clean up and contain the Port Radium mine site. A Canadian government publication had made warnings about the health hazards pertaining to high-grade radioactive ores in 1931. Clements shows how race played a role in the miners' deaths.

Born in 1962, Marie Clements founded urban ink productions, a Vancouver-based Aboriginal and multi-cultural production company that creates and produces Aboriginal works of theatre, music, film and video. As a Métis performer and playwright, she has explored the politics of race, gender and class in Age of Iron, produced at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver and published within DraMétis: Three Métis Plays (2001).

Clements' surrealistic play The Unnatural and Accidental Women (2005) is another politicized reconstruction of the past, this time pertaining to a 30-year-old murder case involving female victims of violence in Vancouver's Skid Row. After several women are found dead, all with high blood-alcohol readings, and all last seen with Gilbert Paul Jordan, a low-lifer known for his associations with primarily middle-aged Aboriginal women, a coroner lists these deaths as "unnatural and accidental."; Marie Clements adapted her play The Unnatural and Accidental Women into a screenplay called Unnatural and Accidental, the film version of which was screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2006.

The remarkable, tormented life of Norval Morrisseau, the man generally regarded as the Father of Contemporary First Nations art, is worthy of an opera, so Clements has fashioned a multi-leveled stage play, Copper Thunderbird (Talonbooks $15.95) to explore his complexity. Copper Thunderbird relates a Faustian tale of the world-revered artist who became a Grand Shaman within the realm of Ojibwa cosmology while succumbing to the effects of family abuse, alcoholism and extreme poverty-including wanderings on the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The result is a composite vision of a fractured life that ranges from the Fort William Sanitarium in 1956 (where he was treated for TB) to the Sandy Lake Reserve near Lake Nipigon in 1965 to the Kenora Jail in 1973 to the Ste. Rose Catholic Detoxification Centre in 1975 and to Los Angeles in 1987.

Halfway through the play, when the voice of the young Morrisseau regrets selling his paintings, a Gallery Room Chorus echoes the opinions of 'white' supporters and a Flooding Room Chorus represents the conflicting views of his Ojibwa community. Clements depicts Morrisseau as an internally embattled visionary unable to come to grips with his overall character. Three Morrisseau characters - boy, young man and old man-hold lively debates over each development of his life, alternately defending and antagonizing one another and giving the impression that Morrisseau is passing his own judgments on himself. In one rare moment, the Three Norvals speak as one, "I am Norval Morrisseau. I am an artist, a storyteller. I am a mystic. I am a very religious person. I am a free man, a force. I am humble. I am Jesus Christ. I am the Creator. I am an Indian and I will save myself.";

The First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere have obviously not vanished, as the frontier photographer Edward Curtis once surmised they would, thereby giving him a self-prescribed mandate to roam the west and generate a massive archive of images that were frequently staged for effect. With images by contemporary photojournalist Rita Leistner, playwright Marie Clements has followed her drama about Curtis and his work with the illustrated text of her play, The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story (Talonbooks 2010) that was stage at Presentation House coincidental with the Olympics in the spring of 2010.

Marie Clements has been the writerly and administrative force behind The Road Forward, an original, Aboriginal blues/rock multi-media musical that integrates traditional and contemporary musical forms, historical media archives and inter-active live performance. The Road Forward was inspired by The Native Voice, an Aboriginal newspaper founded by The Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood of B.C. in Vancouver, B.C., from the 1930s to 1970s. "The Native Voice chronicled not only the voice and vision of some of Canada's most prominent and important history makers, it gave insight into the present realities of Aboriginal people across the Americas. It featured the hard-won events that changed our future." Its contributors were First Nations and non-aborginals alike, including the Quaker West Coast novelist Hubert Evans. "The Road Forward follows a long tradition of coming together to create a collective will: to raise our words and voice and answer the call for change."

Other publicity materials state "The Road Forward was originally conceived to honour the Native women and men of the Native Brotherhood and to raise our hands to the Native women missing and murdered on the Highway of Tears and Vancouver's Downtown Eastside... The Road Forward was commissioned and performed as a nine-minute piece for the closing performance at the Aboriginal Pavilion for the 2010 Olympics. This performance featured Evan Adams, Byron Chief-Moon, Leela Gilday, Jennifer Kreisberg, Kevin Loring, Pura Fé, Ostwelve and Michelle St. John. The piece included additional vocals by Russell Wallace and Rich Carlson and choreography by Michael Greyeyes. The live performance was set amidst an original sculptural installation by Connie Watts.

As a live performance music video directed by Marie Clements, The Road Forward went on to premiere at over 16 film festivals in North American and Europe. It won Best Music Video at The American Indian Film Festival and Winner of Best in Show (Audience Award) at The Native American Film & Video Festival of the Southeast.

Clements' production company red diva projects was in residence with The Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 2011-2012 and presented a workshop production to a sold out audience at The Push International Festival, February 1st, 2013. The work was re-produced during the 2015 PuSh Festival with three performance at the York Theatre, at 649 Commerical Drive in Vancouver, in February of 2015.

Written and directed by Marie Clements, The Road Forward features music composed by Jennifer Kreisberg and guest composers Wayne Lavallee, Ostwelve, Maurice & Delhia Nahanee. Produced by Clement's own red diva projects, its performers in 2015 included Jennifer Kreisberg, Wayne Lavallee, Michelle St. John, Cheri Maracle, Murray Porter, Shakti Hayes, Russell Wallace, Ostwelve, Latash Maurice Nahanee, Delhia Nahanee, Amanda Nahanee, Marissa Nahanee, Corey Payette, JJ Lavallee, Nyla Carpentier.

+++

The Cure for Death by Lightning: a play adapted by Daryl Cloran from the novel by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (Talonbooks $18.95)
?
Talker's Town and The Girl Who Swam Forever: Two Plays by Nelson Gray
and Marie Clements (Talonbooks $18.95)

The cure for death by Lightning is an adaptation by Daryl Cloran of Gail Anderson-Dargatz's 1996 novel of the same name which became a bestseller and award-winner in Canada and the U.K. Adhering to the book's plot, the action begins with John, Mother (never named) and fifteen-year-old Beth Weeks tenting on the Adams Plateau, defending themselves and their sheep from a grizzly bear. John emerges from the bush in his attempt to kill it, wild-eyed and forever changed.

"The year I turned fifteen,"; narrates Beth, "the year the world fell apart and began to come together again...";

The family returns to their farmhouse in a Turtle Valley plagued with fire, suicide, inexplicable deaths, and seemingly possessed animals and humans. John becomes increasingly deranged, combative, and tyrannical, and repeatedly subjects Beth to physical and sexual abuse. When he takes a shotgun to a neighbour whom he blames for his woes, he is apprehended by the authorities and temporarily removed from the community. Mother barely manages to keep the place together, coping through denial, communing with her dead mother, and keeping distant from Beth.
Beth's complicated relationships with the two Indigenous hired hands, cousins Dennis and Filthy Billy, and their Indigenous /settler cousin Nora add to the tumult of her initiation into adulthood. All three have been damaged by intergenerational trauma. Dennis, who copes by drinking, and Nora, who, as the descendant of residential school survivors and "not a real Indian anyway,"; retreat from society. They provide potential companionship and romantic partnerships for Beth.

They eventually elect to escape to the city. Filthy Billy, who displays symptoms of Tourette Syndrome, is the one shining light in Beth's life. He is steadfastly loyal to her, helps her make sense of things through storytelling, and is a counterbalance to her otherwise troubling home life. More revelations ensue.

Empowered by the support of Filthy Billy and a belief in the curing power of storytelling, Beth takes matters into her own hands... The play ends with the quartet travelling to nearby Blood Road, which is blanketed with turtles that Billy and Beth help up the embankment where they will lay their eggs. Action replaces paralysis; cooperation with nature replaces fear of it.
The dark tone of The Cure for Death by Lightning is tempered by the occasionally humorous and touching relationships between Beth and her peers. There is also magic realism conveyed by animal puppets that layers a spiritual element onto the realist template.

In a production note, playwright Cloran credits the puppets with creating the "magic of the show."; Having seen the play (under Cloran's direction) by Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops in 2017, I can attest that the vivid visual descriptions transfer successfully to the stage.

Cloran's preface identifies the core of the play: "the relationship between Canada's settlers and Indigenous people and our shared connection to the land-all seen from the unique perspective of a fifteen-year-old girl.";

In his introduction to Talker's Town and The Girl Who Swam Forever, Nelson Gray makes a similar statement, but with an important difference: he sees his work as a settler, and that of Marie Clements, who is Métis, as together "enacting ... a cross-cultural dialogue.";

Gray acknowledges that, even after he consulted written accounts by Katzie elders and developed face-to-face relationships with several members of the Katzie nation, his attempts to create a female Katzie character for Talker's Town were futile. After consulting with Clements, he saw the solution: to commission her to write a play about the same events as those in Talker's Town.

Loosely based on Gray's experiences in the 1960s as a fifteen-year-old in a rough Fraser Valley mill town, "where the men all smelled like sawdust and the women washed it out,"; Talker's Town is a memory play in part about the unreliability of memory-and a great deal about the viciousness of racism and the lasting repercussions of colonialism. The narrator-talker recounts being on the fringes of a tough group of boys in the superstitious town. He is not fully accepted because he was a talker rather than a doer.
The play's point of attack occurs when a pregnant Indigenous teen, Roberta-Bob, with whom Talker had a poignant Platonic night-time encounter at the wharf, disappears from the Catholic school and the town. Piecing together the past events, Talker recalls reporting to police that he had heard her wailing inside the house of Leroux (a slightly older tough guy) but receiving no follow up report. He also recalls the girl's brother, Raymond-Bob, seeking revenge for her disappearance. More memories and revelations ensue.

In a powerful, disturbing denouement, Talker, like Beth in Cloran's play, achieves adulthood by taking action -action that is disturbing, ambiguous, and complete with spirits and sacrifices. Although this ending is a purging and a personal cleaning for Talker, it is also, ultimately, a scathing indictment of the ethos of the town and, by extension, of the project of colonialism.

As is patent in both the preface and the play itself, the actual events on which Talker's Town are based are difficult for Gray to both recall and to process into a fiction that, in turn, is not pleasant for the reader to process. However, confronting the horrors of racism is a necessary step to eradicating racism.

***
Marie Clements takes oral history from Katzie elder Old Pierre as her starting point in The Girl Who Swam Forever. The daughter in the first human family to live on Pitt Lake swims on the lake and is transformed into a sturgeon. She is the original fish on the lake and the mother of all sturgeon. Her brother, grief stricken at losing his sister, is transformed by their father into "an owl-like bird that can only be seen by the Katzie descendants."; Only humans can take a sturgeon's life, and only after they seek the power to do so from the brother.

Clements interweaves this story with a version of the more contemporary one in Talker's Town. The setting is both above ("reality";) and below ("dream";) water, and both the 1960s and the beginning of creation. The Old One acts as a narrator/chorus/guide to the reader, introducing the story by revealing the play's structure, gradually telling Old Pierre's story, and eventually being revealed as the original sturgeon.

In the 1960s story, Forever, a pregnant and orphaned residential school student, has the spirits of her grandmother and the Old One to guide her. Forever escapes from the residential school, revealing her situation through dialogue with her brother Ray (Brother Big Eyes) and with the white boy, Jim, the baby's father. More memories and revelations ensue...

The richness and breadth of The Girl Who Swam Forever is typical of Clements' style. In works such as The Unnatural and Accidental Women (2000) and The Edward Curtis Project (2010), for example, she masterfully conjoins different worlds, erasing barriers of time and place and producing works that are at once strong condemnations of the project of colonization and jaw-droppingly beautiful affirmations of the resilience of Indigenous cultures.

The Cure for Death: 9781772012057;

Talker's Town/The Girl Who Swam: 9781772012019

Review by Ginny Ratsoy, an associate professor of English at Thompson Rivers University specializing in Canadian literature.
+++

BOOKS:

Now Look What You Made Me Do - Prerogatives (Blizzard Publishing, 1998).

The Girl Who Swam Forever (Miami University Press, 2000).

Urban Tattoo (UCLA Press and Ribsause, 2001; book/cd by Vehicle Press). Urban Tattoo - Keepers of the Morning Star (UCLA Press, 2003)

DraMétis: Three Métis Plays (Thetyus, 2001). 'Age of Iron'. With Greg Daniels & Margo Kane.

The Suitcase Chronicles (Journey Publication, 2002).

Burning Vision (Talonbooks, 2003).

Tombs of the Vanishing Indian (Talon, 2012) $16.95 978-0-88922-686-9

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2012] "Galiano"