Fabric of the Sky a powerful residential school survivor's story

The Urban Indigenous Theatre Company makes a powerful debut as an independent company with Fabric of the Sky, a searing story of the aftermath of residential schools, writes CBC theatre reviewer Joff Schmidt.
Michael Lawrenchuk stars as the aging patriarch who hides his past residential school trauma from his family in Fabric of the Sky. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

"How can I ask you to remember me," an aging Alan asks his family in Fabric of the Sky, "if I never told you my story?"

This play, by Governor General's Award-winning Manitoba playwright Ian Ross, premiered a few years back as part of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission event.

The production marks the first independent outing for the Urban Indigenous Theatre Company, a company born out of the Aboriginal Arts Training and Mentorship Program at Manitoba Theatre for Young People. It makes a powerful debut as an independent company with this searing story of the aftermath of residential schools.

Alan, played by Michael Lawrenchuk, is in his latter years. He's failing physically and mentally, but as his story unfolds, it becomes clear he's been spiritually damaged for most of his life because of his experience in a residential school, and the loss there of his brother Seth (Ryan Black).

Black also plays the role of Greg, Alan's son, who's never been able to understand why he grew up with a father who was physically present, but emotionally absent. Struggling to help the family understand each other is Alan's wife, Ruby (Tracey Nepinak).

Themes of loss, damage, healing

All of this is serious subject matter, but Ross is a writer with a particular talent for cutting the most dramatic subjects with laugh-out-loud punchlines and warm, genuine character comedy (like Alan's quip when he reveals to Greg he has some European ancestry — "Why do you think you have such a shapely bum?").

Ryan Black stars in Fabric of the Sky by Governor General award-winning playwright Ian Ross. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)
The humour helps make the taut, 55-minute play accessible. But the themes of loss, damage, and healing are what audiences will take away from the compelling story.

It's beautifully played in director ColumpaBobb's production. Lawrenchuk has great comic timing with a one-liner but also delivers some wrenching moments, particularly a final scene that could easily become melodrama, but is deeply affecting thanks to his sensitive performance.

Nepinak likewise has some tremendously moving moments here — while Ruby says her own residential school experience "wasn't so bad," it's clear she's as much a victim of the system as Alan.

So, too, is Greg — while he could easily be played as a caricature of an "angry young man," Black finds more layers to the character in his performance.

Fabric of the Sky is, though, not a perfect play, with one of my biggest problems with it being the under-use of the play's fourth character, Greg's daughter Ellen. Kelsey Wavey makes the most of the under-written part, but it feels like there's a missed opportunity to explore the effect of Alan's experience on yet another generation.

But there's a truth and a power in the story here that shines through. If it's true that the first step in real reconciliation is understanding the stories of residential school survivors — and those who weren't — Fabric of the Sky is a story that must be told, and a play which must be seen.

The Urban Indigenous Theatre Company's Fabric of the Sky runs until Nov. 30 at the Bandwidth Theatre (formerly Ellice Theatre) at 587 Ellice Ave.