Last Friday (which was Remembrance Day in Canada) I had the privilege of waking up in a warm apartment, grabbing a bowl of Cheerios, and cozying up under a blanket on the couch as I settled in to watch the Ottawa Remembrance Day ceremonies on CBC. I say I had the privilege to eat Cheerios like a slob in front of the TV dressed in my PJs because it is days like Friday that remind me that each and every part of my working-to-middle class Canadian life, even the less glamorous parts, are things I am privileged to have.
I am also privileged to live in Vancouver, a city where the theatre community, though comparatively small and green, is still able to produce and share art that plays a role in reminding me not only of the privileges, but also the responsibilities, of living the relatively charmed life I lead. Sean Devine’s “Re:Union”, a co-production presented by Pacific Theatre and Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, which I also had the privilege of watching last Friday, was an excellent example of art’s ability to aid in the process of remembrance.
Many people (myself included) often view remembrance at this time of year as a passive act, a time for tucking a poppy into our lapel, turning on the CBC, and turning our thoughts momentarily to a time when sacrifices and hardship were daily widespread Canadian experiences. We sometimes forget to remember that Canada is currently a country at war, or to remember that we have a place in the history we are constantly creating.
“Re:Union” is inspired by the little-known story of Norman Morrison, an American Quaker who could no longer think passively on the sufferings of others. Feeling he had been called upon by a higher power to act, on November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison drove to the Pentagon with his baby daughter Emily. Norman doused his body in kerosene and set himself alight, a horrifying protest against the horrors of the war in Vietnam. Norman Morrison burned to death that night under the office window of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense. Devine’s play presents these facts but also takes us 36 years into the future, as Norman’s now-adult daughter Emily confronts McNamara, blames him for his inaction in failing to stop the atrocities of Vietnam, and asks him to bear witness as she plans to protest the policies of the post-9/11 Bush Administration.
The play was beautifully understated. I was given no black, no white, no rousing call to arms. I was given complexity. I was given honest, challenging, and contained performances. I was given questions: Is there a higher power than our own ethics? Is merely trying to reduce and control civilian casualties in our military actions enough? Is inaction an act of compliance with oppressive forces? What about extreme action that costs dearly but ultimately yields no results?
In “Re:Union”, it is Emily I most identify with. I am not a martyr. I am not a high-powered bureaucrat or politician. I am a person who cares about her world and is chafing constantly against her own inability to act. When I am called to remember I remember with my whole heart but in the end, usually, any action I take is perfunctory at best, enough to tide me over until the next news story, the next conversation, the next play, the next November 11.
In Devine’s play, Norman Morrison’s act of protest is prefaced by stillness, rooted in the Quaker belief that if one remains still, one will receive the Divine. Emily Morrison’s ultimate inaction is prefaced by movement: by research, video diaries she makes of herself, confrontation with the ornery McNamara, and the act of remembrance. Neither of these individuals stopped any wars. But they were Davids without a sling, against a Goliath with tanks. To have that expectation of them is to simplify a world we know to be more complex: a world of actions having chain reactions, the consequences of which are not always immediately visible. A world where “all or nothing” competes with “every little bit helps” and those of us who care are constantly stuck in an almost paralyzing negotiation between the two.
Beneath the action that cost too much and the inaction that seemed to cost far more, Re:Union tells the story of a father and a daughter, a legacy of love and remembrance and a responsibility to the world that can be as big as one’s responsibility to their Maker, or as small as their responsibility to the truth about themselves and their own personal history of action and inaction.
If you would like more information about Pacific Theatre’s 2011/2012 season, please visit their website: www.pacifictheatre.org.
Information about Horsehoes and Hand Grenade’s latest projects can be found at: www.horseshoesandhandgrenades.ca.