Shown in Tarragon Theatre’s latest season, “This Was The World” by director Ellie Moon, is a play that chronicles the downfall of a white professor as he grapples with social change being made to academic institutions, and everything he knows.
We have real life examples of this in our backyard— from the aftermath of colonizing Indigenous people through various means to the lack of those from marginalized communities represented in positions of power. Ryerson University named the school after one of the residential school’s founding fathers, Eggerton Ryerson.
His statue glares at the faces of Ryerson’s diverse student body in a central part of campus; a reminder to us of Canada’s history of assimilation, and how this will always be imprinted into the fibres that make our country. “This was the World” brings this idea as its central thesis, and calls out those responsible for not challenging problematic institutions, or changing their ingrained eurocentricity.
John Taylor (R.H. Thompson) is a 60-something professor of constitution law and Indigenous rights, at an unnamed Ontario law school. Niimi (Dakota Ray Hebert), an Indigenous woman, is assigned to Taylor’s class as a faculty mentor. Niimi seeks to learn the ins and outs of all things Canadian law, so she can one day infiltrate it, and change the system to fight for marginalized communities and Indigenous people in Canada.
Although Taylor seems to theoretically understand the nature of Canadian law and ethics in Canada, he lacks both a learned history and experience with systemic oppression. He makes no effort to educate himself in departments where he lacks experience. In the opening scene, before we even meet Niimi, he is at a meeting with the associate dean (Kim Nelson), discussing a complaint someone made regarding an insensitive comment he had previously made.
Niimi brings a new perspective to the way law should be, and has to be, in Canada. Taylor can feel Niimi’s ambition, and in turn, questions the role of his own privilege. Taylor shares this complaint with Niimi, thus snowballing a slew of other discussions between the two and in turn, Niimi taking action against him in the form of another complaint. He then faces the loss of his career, and respect from peers and colleagues.
His daughter Ava (Rachel VanDuzer) becomes involved as well, as she grapples with two worlds – the ethics of an outdated law professor and the love of her father. Ava loses her own sanity grappling the two worlds, and her own “white fragility”.
At first, I felt as though the essence or ‘soul’ of the play was as distant and theoretical as the topic of law and ethics can be. The first few scenes were debate heavy, with the between Taylor and the associate dean, or Taylor and Niimi. Why put fictional characters in a technical debate about culture, colonialism and reconciliation when academics are having these discussions in the media anyway?
I felt that there could have been more of a fluidity in the narrative as a result of this, to balance out the more technical and political- heavy conversations that were happening.The issues presented would have already been prevalent, if you kept the same integrity, the same intent even for each scene, with maybe a little opportunity for conversations that showed more layers in their actual personality.
I felt the same could’ve been done for Niimi.
She was the political emphasis of the conversation. Being an Indigenous woman looking to change the education system from within, I felt she was too much of a one dimensional character. Giving a marginalized character more qualities as a person first, rather than defining them by their struggle, actually helps fuel the political point one is trying to make. It shows diverse characters normalized as complicated everyday members of society in Canada, when given the same personal richness or emotional range as the other more privileged characters. Her identity and marginalization could even inform her layered personality, and could make her a stronger protagonist in the play as a result.
Regardless, the play’s ideas were indicative of a greater conversation or topic in our country; will our employees, and faculty in the education system reflect the diversity they seek out to teach?
It also calls out those who are unwilling to look inside themselves and see if they have been a part of the problem. Being unaware of one’s insensitivity or lack of education isn’t enough of an excuse to perpetuate insensitive personal dialogue, and dialogue in the workplace.
We have seen the need for diversity across workspaces, newsrooms, corporations and academic institutions. Canada’s law or history curriculum have reflected a more, settler-based, eurocentric reveal of Canada’s identity, rather than touching on the history of those who came before and were affected by settlers, and who added onto history in the years after.
The before and after portion of history with respect to European settlers in Canada tends to be erased. This erasing has come in the form of residential school systems, national anthems in European languages, and various workspaces and curriculums that have fallen short on recognizing the country’s diversity.
“This Was the World” dealt with reconciliation, listening, and changing the course of political history. Although the story scratched the surface on who the characters were, in order to help viewers empathize with their personal problems, it still spoke of real problems happening in our country. It called out the need for more diversity and empathy in our workspaces, and in our everyday lives.
Photo by Paul Green/ Unsplash.