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Theatre review: útszan (to make better) is a powerful piece of theatre that every Canadian should see

útszan (to make better) continues at The Cultch’s VanCity Culture Lab until May 13.

Yvonne Wallace in útszan (to make better). Photo by Emily Cooper.

útszan (to make better) is a cross between an informative language lesson, a prime example of great storytelling and a powerful piece of relevant theatre that every Canadian should see.

Written, performed and co-directed by Yvonne Wallace from the Lil’wat Nation in Whistler, it is a play about love – love of language, culture, and family. It also reveals the intrinsic value of language to those who have been forced to abandon it and, more importantly, how to reclaim and reconnect with it as part of their identity.

The faultless flow of this 80-minute one-woman show takes the audience from the main protagonist Margaret’s childhood trauma, often inflicted by her siblings, to the kinder upbringing of her Auntie Celia and the payback when her aunt nears the end of her life. While tending to Auntie Celia’s needs in the hospital after her heart attack, Margaret learns to speak and think in her Indigenous tongue. Her Auntie Celia refuses to die until she is satisfied that Ucwalmícwts is safe in Margaret’s hands.

Wallace treats every aspect of her story with respect and tenderness. She moves from storyteller to various salient characters, including her aged aunt and former parent substitute, her uncle, her brother and a delightful immigrant nurse. Each rounded person is beautifully observed and convincing, and the transition from one to another is seamless.

From time to time, she augments the ‘cast’ by carrying a Hudson’s Bay blanket like the fragile form of her aunt as she’s nearing death, or she dances with a saline drip stand draped in a shirt to portray her aunt and uncle in their youth. Her love for her adoptive parents is palpable and moving.

Yvonne Wallace draped in a Hudson's Bay blanket in útszan (to make better). Photo by Emily Cooper.
Yvonne Wallace draped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket in útszan (to make better). Photo by Emily Cooper.

Nuggets revealed as the story unfolds include how the cruel ‘teasing’ methods displayed by family members were learned at the residential school they were forced to attend. However, as Margaret’s father was a settler, thus making her half-white, she was spared that schooling and stayed home with her aunt and uncle.

Wallace writes the Ucwalmícwts word for half-white/half-Ucwalmícw, besides other key Indigenous words driving the story, with chalk upon pieces of slate she displays around the set. Others, such as the play’s title, útszan, meaning ‘to make better,’ she inscribes in a story circle on the floor. The words also appear on a screen shaped like a drum or dream circle behind her.

The action is supported and enhanced by co-director Marisa Smith, set and lighting designers Kimira Reddy and Itai Erdal, respectively, and sound designers Rick Colhoun and Russell Wallace.

útszan (to make better), written and performed by Yvonne Wallace. Directed by Marisa Smith and Yvonne Wallace. A Ruby Slippers Theatre production on stage at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab (1895 Venables St. Vancouver) until May 13. Visit thecultch.com for tickets and information. Members of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society are on hand if anyone needs support.

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