L’nu (Mi’kmaw) storyteller shalan joudry powerfully brings Mi’kmaw women through the centuries to life in her enchanting, emotionally moving show Koqm.
Koqm – playing on Neptune’s main stage to April 17 – is full of heartache, humour and a harsh history. What shines through most is the remarkable spirit of joudry’s women, their strength and their struggle to preserve their culture and people.
The play starts with a Mi’kmaw woman of today unsure of her identity as she worries about climate change, the death of elders and the loss of the Mi’kmaw language.
Advised to “listen to the forest,” she visits a giant, 400-year old tree – koqm – on the land her ancestors dwelled upon. She places her head and hands on it to conjure up her female ancestors.
The L’s+tkuk (Bear River First Nation) poet expertly uses carved, flesh-coloured masks to convincingly become these lively, differently-voiced women who move with the energy of youth or the stoop of old age.
Halifax masking coach Ann-Marie Kerr assisted joudry in working with masks and going deeply into her characters, which range from a young woman on the run trying to save a healthy baby after her village has been decimated by small pox to a cranky post-war woman comically nagging her husband and talking to her absent daughter – away at residential school – but coming home for the winter ceremony.
I come to this show as a white woman descended from Loyalists, New England Planters and a British orphan and I come to it as a mother whose child is away.
Koqm pulls at the heart because it is about mothers and children: mothers whose children are absent, mothers who seek to protect their children.
It is also very much about grandmothers and the knowledge they pass on; there is an undercurrent of how devastating the loss of generational knowledge has been for Canada’s Indigenous people,.
At first it feels too slow – given the rush of parking or dashing into the theatre to be on time. But then joudry, dressed simply in a brown, fringed tunic, works her magic. By the end of the hour people are reluctant to leave because the women are compelling; the Mi’kmaw language is as beautiful as a spring brook and the Mi’kmaw song that weaves through the generations sticks like a heartbeat
Director Ken Schwartz works with joudry and all the elements to create an atmosphere of nature and the presence of the human spirit. MacKenzie Cornfield’s beautiful lighting design points all eyes to joudry and acts like sunlight on a simple set of giant logs with natural, wooden props that become a broom or a baby cradle. All is of the forest and the earth.
Koqm, also going to Ship’s Company Theatre Aug. 11 to 14, is co-presented with Prismatic Arts Centre and produced by Nestuita’si Storytelling with supporting producer Two Planks and A Passion Theatre, which produced joudry’s first full length play, Elapultiek in 2018 and 2019.
In a news release joudry explains the show’s origins. (joudry uses lower case.)
“I live close to the colonial Annapolis Royal so i’m aware of the celebratory stories we hear over and over again about the European settlement process. And i always wonder what the L’nu’k were experiencing at those various points throughout the centuries. How did they relate, respond, cope? Not that i can voice the multitude of experiences.
“This show does not tell our story as though L’nu history can be summarized in one show. These are a few stories, just a handful of women through time to help bring more awareness to the depth of who we are.”
She approached Two Planks and a Passion Theatre artistic director Ken Schwartz, director of Koqm, to collaborate in bringing the production to the stage.
“I sense that many non-indigenous people are very eager to engage with the history of colonization but are unsure where to start,” said Schwartz. “This play is one small way to do that. It will leave many audience members with questions about so many things, which I love about this piece. It also gives voice to many people who often aren’t referenced in history books, but are incredibly important to recognize and remember, as we all owe them so much.”
I think it’s wonderful of Neptune to go beyond acknowledging we are on unceded territory to actually put the culture of those whose territory it is on a mainstream stage.
It was important to artistic director Jeremy Webb. “As a regional theatre, Neptune is committed to opening its doors. Not just the physical space we inhabit on this land, but also in dialogue and as participants in social change.”
Tickets are available at http://www.neptune; joudry leads a 30-minute talk-back after evening performances. COVID-19 protocols include mask-wearing by patrons and employees and one-seat of separation between groups. The theatre offers Reduced Capacity performances for its Sunday matinee and evening shows. These maintain masking, one-seat of separation between groups and proof of full vaccination (which is not necessary for the regular performances).