The air was thick with the smell of sage as Samaqani Cocahq’s (Natalie Sappier) powerful voice filled Memorial Hall with a Wolastoqiyik song, accompanied by a simple shaker.
A multifaceted Wolastoqiyik artist, Sappier is from Tobique First Nation and, for this project, again collaborated with talented actor and traditional dancer Possesom Paul, whom she had worked with during her 2018 residency at Theatre New Brunswick. This piece is her first collaboration with sound designer and self-described “electronic musician,” Dawson Sacobie. In commenting on the creation process, Possassom declared: “it’s important to have ownership over our stories.”
Sappier explained that the performance is “stories about Maw.” In her introduction to the show, she explained how the piece came into being: “I was compiling all these stories: building, building, building.” She continued: “I was trying to understand this magical being” who kept bouncing around her.
Paul, Sacobie and Sappier collaborated to make reality what Sappier described as the “sound projected from an unseen” and “the breath that lies between the hoop and the skin of the drum.” These are the places where Sappier finds story and the origin of the magic she creates.
Sappier acknowledged the guidance she had received from her elders, mentors and “other people she goes to for guidance.” She admitted that “it takes a community to tell and share these stories.” Towards the end, the performance features one of these mentors, Elder Imelda Perley, singing a lullaby. Wolastoqey Grand Chief Ron Tremblay also helped Sappier with “understanding what lies within our language.”
Dramaturge, activist and pioneer of Indigenous theatre, Monique Mojica, was also instrumental in helping Sappier create this piece. After often being told she should collaborate with Mojica, Sappier finally met her at the Banff Centre and subsequently spent two weeks with her during another workshop. Sappier affirmed: “I need to learn from people who work onstage.”
About her time with Mojica, Sappier observed: “we create from the same place: from ceremony, from the land (…) it’s different from Western theatre.” Mojica also helped Sappier “share [the stories] in a safe way.” Sappier realized that Mojica “was gifting me a structure from which to create stories: the basket.”
Sappier has constructed many amazing strands ready to shape her basket of stories and, for her, “where we all lie in the basket” is what has come of it: Maw is a work in progress. The performance is about “the one time that Maw is born from Tall Tree Woman,” one of many times they are born. These are the powerful women in the community, according to Sappier, “the ones who remind us of the medicine we have within us.”
Maw is two-spirited, according to Sappier; “anyone can play Maw because everyone is Maw,” so the character does not have one specific gender. The piece also bridges time, spanning from the mythical era, through the 20th century, and into the present.
Interestingly, the first section of the play Sappier wrote was “the classroom scene” about residential and day schools. In this segment, Sappier symbolizes the weight of Western religious education by having the character struggle to detach himself from the weight of a chair, which eventually overpowers Maw. For Sappier, many survivors of residential and day schools proclaim “I thought I was over it, I thought I was fine,” but still feel the physical and psychological burden of this experience.
The show features spoken Wolastoqiyik language. Sappier said that adding in the language meant editing the English language script since the Wolastoqiyik language contains rich descriptions. For her, it is very valuable to “learn the language (…) through art and stories.”
During the rich discussion that followed the performance, Sappier’s mentors and other audience members shared experiences related to the performance. Basket maker Victor Bear, shared his experience that his family rarely used the word “love,” something that has become more common in First Nations families. Audience member Maggie Paul sang part of a lullaby from her family, adding another possible strand to Sappier’s basket.
Sappier’s previous play, Finding Wolastoq Voice, was presented in Fredericton in 2018. Maw was performed at the Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival in Toronto on Nov. 20 with another actress playing Maw. The Memorial Hall performance on Dec. 5, 2019 was Sappier’s last during her residency at UNB’s Memorial Art Centre.
Sophie M. Lavoie writes on arts and culture and is on the Editorial Board of the NB Media Co-op.