1939 by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan


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1939 by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan

At a Residential School in northern Ontario, five students are ordered to gather in a classroom. Two of them, Joseph Summers and his sister, Beth, have been at the school for seven years, but its policy of separating siblings has largely kept them apart – till now. Susan Blackbird, an orphan who has been there since she was four, struggles to connect with her barely remembered Cree heritage, while newcomer Evelyne Rice tries to avoid punishment by repressing her Mohawk culture and language. Jean Delorme, as a Métis student, is a rarity at the school and struggles to fit in.

English teacher Sian Ap Dafydd explains the reason for their summons: they have been chosen to entertain King George VI and his Queen on their forthcoming visit with a student performance of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Firmly colonial in her notions and intentions, Ap Dafydd is as determined to get her young actors to deliver the “big round vowels” she considers essential to speaking Shakespeare as she is to show the royal couple how the students are learning to be “good little Canadians.”

But as rehearsals proceed, the students’ agency erupts as they learn about each other and discover parallels between the play’s characters and their own experiences. Confronting individual and collective tragedy with humour and strength, the students undertake a journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Their resilience evoking Helena’s line in All’s Well: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.”

Keywords: Indigenous, Canadian, Shakespeare, play with a play

Produced by the Stratford Festival, Stratford ON, 2022

Genre: Drama with humour
Acts: 2
Run time: 150 minutes
Suitable for students 16+
Content note: The play is set in a Residential School. Though no acts of physical violence appear on stage, the implications of violence and the results of violence are felt and experienced as well as the systematic erasure of Indigenous culture and language.

Cast size: 8 actors
Male roles: 3
Female roles: 5
Casting note:  *for professional productions, the playwrights ask that the Indigenous roles are played by Indigenous actors, though not necessarily of the same nation as the characters.
Susan Blackbird: Cree student, 16 year old
Sian Ap Dafydd: English teacher, Welsh descent, 50 years old
Jean Delorme: Algonquin Métis student, 16 years old
Madge Macbeth (historical figure): Journalist, raised Jewish, 61 years old
Evelyne Rice: Mohawk student, 16 years old
Beth Summers: Ojibwe student, 15 year old
Joseph Summers: Ojibwe former student, 17 years old
Callum Williams: Anglican Priest, English descent, and teacher, mid 30s

Photo credit:
Richard Comeau (centre) with (from left) Tara Sky, John Wamsley, Kathleen MacLean and Wahsonti-io Kirby in the world premiere of 1939 at the Stratford Festival, in 2022. 
Directed by Jani Lauzon, set design by Joanna Yu, costume design by Asa Benally, lighting design by Louise Guinand, sound design by Wayne Kelso.
Photo by David Hou.