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Review: Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, by Bill Holdom

Review: Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, by Bill Holdom

March 5, 2024

Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital:

Reawakening Hul’q’umin’um’, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwak’wala Languages

A play by Laura Cranmer

Witnessing the two 31 January 2024 script-in-hand performances of Laura Cranmer’s Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital  at the Port Theatre was a rare, even unique, experience, both meaningfully and theatrically.  Before I explain, let me identify my perspective.  I am a retired English professor.  I spent the last few years of my career in what was then called the Vancouver Island University’s First Nations Studies Department, team-teaching with Indigenous Studies scholars.  I’m married to Laura Cranmer, the playwright of this play.  So, although I have considerable “inside” information, my perspective is distinctly non-indigenous and literary.  I record here my experience as a member of the audience.

The presentation began with lengthy introductory elements that included respectful acknowledgements of the local Snuneymuxw territory, some background on the Nanaimo Indian Hospital and others like it, a welcoming song from Snuneymuxw Elder Geraldine Manson, a nod to the research team that in effect produced the play, and warnings about how the play might activate emotional trauma, and how skilled people were available for anyone needing assistance.  The matinee even included a message from Nanaimo’s mayor, Leonard Krog.  All of this took at least half an hour for a matinee; a bit less for the evening event – a bit too long it seemed, but perhaps much of it was simply satisfying various protocols.

In spite of the warnings, the play itself does not directly present shocking scenes of abuse or violence.  Instead, it proceeds in a much gentler fashion, working through hints, suggestions, allusions, and implications.  A key to understanding the play is to realize that it emerges almost entirely from the children’s point of view.  This is how they experienced their hospitalization.  It is only we in the audience who come to comprehend the horrid implications of what the children are going through.

The play focuses on Dorothy Myth, a six-year-old girl who at first is living in Alert Bay with her grand-parents, Ada (Ann Woodward) and G̱ag̱a̱mp (David Dawson). They relate to Dorothy warmly and affectionately. But the first scene ends with her anguished pleas not to be taken to the hospital.  It may take a moment for the audience to accept the mature actor playing Dorothy as the daughter of the parental figures on stage, but there is a certain symmetry here.  The playwright, Laura Cranmer, is playing Dorothy, and Dorothy is a dramatic version of Laura’s own childhood self who was indeed a patient of the Nanaimo Indian Hospital during the 1960’s.  In effect, Laura is playing herself.  It is a striking example of “writing herself into the world” as her MA supervisor, Antoinette Oberg, observed as characteristic of Cranmer’s writing during the creation of her first play, “DP’s Colonial Cabaret.”

Most of the play takes place in Ward B of the hospital, where Dorothy occupies a bed between two other child-patients, Esther (Virginia Robertson who is the Hul’q’umin’um’ speaker) and Mary (Hannah Frank who is the Nuu-chah-nulth speaker).  As they begin to engage with each other, the original purpose of the play becomes apparent – to display and help revitalize the Indigenous languages of Vancouver Island.  The three characters and Nurse Faith (also from Alert Bay) often use their Indigenous languages, Kwak’wala, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Hul’q’umin’um’.  They also frequently revert to English, not only to let the mostly English-speaking audience know what is going on, but also because the three Indigenous languages are mutually unintelligible.  By the 1960’s, English had become a lingua franca, a tool for the members of different language groups to communicate with each other, so its use in the play is as realistic as it is effective.

Largely ignoring the demands of Super, the officious institutional representative in the play, to not make “funny sounds”, the girls light-heartedly and playfully explore the words and ways of saying things in their home languages.  It is good-spirited banter.  But the girls are quickly punished for becoming excited or agitated and are each sent to the “cooling-down room”, essentially a place of solitary confinement where they are strapped to a gurney on which each patient is made to lie still under a strong, bright light. On stage, these scenes take place in silhouette behind a white screen.

The cooling-down room is the setting for three extended monologues, one from each of the girls, that form the linguistic, thematic, and imagistic core of the play.  As they each lie there, alone and cold, they articulate, entirely in their own languages, a dream-memory of their past life before coming to the hospital.  At the same time as each character delivers her monologue, an animation of the dream-memory appears on a large screen on stage.  The audience is invited to connect the language they are hearing to the images they are seeing, without any verbal translation – a noteworthy innovation.  The result is a challenging but moving experience.  These too are scenes from(but not of) the Nanaimo Indian Hospital.

Each of the monologues contains a story that provides a metaphorical and/or emotional parallel to the girl’s incarceration in the hospital.  In Dorothy’s monologue, she is hemmed in by walls and corridors and doors that don’t open, and finally falls down a flight of stairs.  Mary remembers playing tag on a log boom, then falling into the water and staying under for too long before finally resurfacing.  Esther worries whether the small fishing boat in the bay will ever make it back to shore when her grandfather/skipper falls down.  Fear and foreboding unite all the monologues.  As Dorothy says at one point, “…patients like me don’t usually walk out of the hospital.  We’re carried out.”

The monologues, then, have a nightmarish tinge.  But they also showcase the expressiveness and subtlety of the Island’s original languages.  In one of the introductory elements, Amanda Wager suggests that we just let the languages “wash over us”.  Good advice.  And very good to hear the actors enunciating their languages confidently and clearly on stage, without compromise or apology.  The play’s performance contributes significantly to revitalization and education.  This play becomes one of the ways in which we reverse the tremendous damage done by residential schools and similar institutions to Indigenous cultures and languages.

However, Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital takes on another purpose as well – that of truth-telling.  Through the villainous Dr. Needles (Ross Stephanson) and the over-bearing nurse Super (Kymme Patrick), we get a glimpse of just what these hospitals were up to.  Super’s role is to maintain a strict order, administer sedatives and experimental drugs to patients, and punish anyone who showed any signs of defiance or speaking an Indigenous language.  Dr. Needles appears as a madman, obsessed with keeping secret records of his experiments with the patients, and, oddly, with his privacy.  They come across as stock dramatic villains who would be laughable if they didn’t represent a historical reality.

The official cover story was that the Indian Hospitals had been established to address outbreaks of tuberculosis among Indigenous populations.  While there may have been a slender thread of truth to that initially, Cranmer in her play follows the more recent findings that these hospitals were primarily instruments of segregation, deculturalization, and medical experimentation on an unsuspecting and captive population.  In effect, the hospitals were cousins of the residential schools.

In the play, we hear about a strange treatment in the cooling-down room that involves smearing a white cream all over Dorothy’s body before she is placed under very close strong bright light.  Is this a hint of some form of radiation therapy?  We also hear of the administration of unproved drugs such as BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin).  We even hear of a plan to sterilize a group of women patients. And Dorothy overhears that she may have osteogenesis imperfecta, but nothing is done about it.  What we don’t hear is any reason for why the girls are there in a hospital at all.  Instead, we are left with the impression that they have been swept up into a giant lab where they are treated like lower-level humans, receiving experimental medications and treatments at the will of Dr. Needles.

Brightening this very dark prospect is the role of Nurse Faith (Daisy Elliot), a Kwak’wala speaker who has been hired as a ward nurse to help calm the patients.  Happily, she does her job all too well.  She provides sympathy and comfort to the girls and accepts their home languages, becomes suspicious of the hospital administration, and eventually blows the whistle on the whole operation.  She is the girls’ guardian angel and the play’s true Warrior.  She sees that something has gone terribly wrong and saves the girls from further experimentation.

If Nurse Faith is a shining light in the play, Dzunuḵ̕wa (Ann Woodward) is much more shrouded and ambiguous.  In Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture, Dzunuḵ̕wa is a powerful figure who, among other things, can scoop up children and take them away in her large cedar basket.  But in the hospital setting of the play, she seems weakened and sad. Her song that Radio Ray broadcasts is “sorta mournful, don’t you think?”  When she comes on stage while the girls are sleeping, she pauses by each bed before choosing Mary as the one she wants to scoop into her basket, but she can’t, or doesn’t, do it.  Only Dorothy sees “something” on Mary’s bed; she vanishes before anyone else spots her.  There is too much evil in this place for her to be feared, envisioned, or even remembered.

Throughout the play, Dorothy desperately asks whoever comes on the ward, even Mrs. Powell (Becky Thiessen), the teacher assigned to the hospital, when she will be going home.  No one has an answer.  Near the end of the play, she casually announces to her fellow patients that this is her third Christmas in the hospital.  Mary and Esther both say it is their fourth.  The lines must land like a thunderclap on any members of the audience unfamiliar with Indian Hospitals.  Three or four years?  How can that be?  What kind of hospital is this?  All the hints and suggestions about what has really been happening in that hospital suddenly start adding up.  These girls are not patients, but prisoners.

And yet, the play ends on a high note.  The hospital is being shut down – the three girls are going home.  What a relief from the heavy darkness earlier.  Of course, as we know now, these kids were among the lucky ones.

In her part of the video introduction, Cranmer says that, in spite of all the darkness, she hopes the play “will also be uplifting.”  And, finally, it is.  Only we in the audience see the hideousness of the Nanaimo Indian Hospital.  The three young girls in their beds express the exuberance and buoyancy of youth, a spirit that carries them through all the nastiness of the institution.  Their friendship blossoms and prevails against whatever penalties Super can dream up. They maintain and develop their languages.  And the inspiring Nurse Faith saves them all.

In the end, Scenes from the Nanaimo Indian Hospital is a play about resilience in the face of oppression, and that is both an uplifting and a timeless theme.