“Tanya: Did you know this would happen?
Tanya: Then why did you do it? What did you achieve? Why have you brought us here? Why are we hungry? Why are we sick? Where are our homes? Where are our families? Why are we dying? What do you want?
Nikolai: A narrow path.
Tanya: A what?
Nikolai: A narrow path. We achieved a narrow path…”
– Excerpt from “Spirit Wrestler” by Greg Nelson
This past Thursday I had the great pleasure of attending the opening night of the play “Spirit Wrestler” being performed at the University of Saskatchewan’s Greystone Theatre. Spirit Wrestler was written by Greg Nelson in the early 1990s after being approached by George Stushnoff of the Doukhobor Society of Saskatchewan who was looking for someone to write a play about the Doukhobors for the 1995 centennial celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Burning of the Arms by the Doukhobors in Russia. The play is set during a time period that starts around 1895 in Russia and ends in Canada in approximately 1908. That period of just over a decade was a defining one for the Doukhobors which set in motion events that not just led to the Doukhobors immigrating from the Caucuses of Russia to the Prairies of Canada (and later on for many to the Kootenay Valley of British Columbia), but also the splits that happened in the community both back in Russia and once in Canada. It was first performed in Saskatoon at 25th Street Theatre in October and November of 1995, and a much younger version of me had the pleasure of being a part of that production as one of the Doukhobor choir members that sung in the background and were extras in various scenes.
Having the opportunity to see it performed more than two decades later was a real treat, and as always there are new insights when you get to see something with fresh perspective. What struck me most while watching it this time is that the play does a great job of embracing the complexity of people’s motivations. None of the characters are developed as pure good or evil (though Russian Governor Nakashidze and Canadian Professor James Mavor come closest on opposite sides of the spectrum), and the script is careful to show the often conflicting emotions and motivations that drive them. The evolution of the main character Nikolai in particular is a fascinating one to watch as he evolves from a young idealist in Russia to having to make some very difficult decisions later on in Canada as he struggled with his identity and the path that his life, and that of his community, would take in a new country. While the play itself is set during historic events, the playwright was careful to always emphasize that Spirit Wrestler is ultimately a work of fiction. It treads a fine line between historical accuracy and capturing a specific sense of emotion and feeling that it wants the audience to experience – for me it finds that artistic balance well if one can take an objective viewpoint going into it.
The students who were performing in this production of Spirit Wrestler did a wonderful job, and particularly impressive was the fact that they learnt in a very short period of time how to sing a number of traditional Doukhobor hymns in Russian in our unique 5-part harmony a cappella style (with help from members of the Saskatoon Doukhobor community who spent time mentoring them over the past few weeks). The performance was of particular resonance to me given the work that I am immersed in right now on our documentary film and multimedia installation about the Saskatchewan Doukhobors. While Spirit Wrestler essentially weaves the story of how the Independent Doukhobor community in Saskatchewan came to be during that critical decade at the turn of the 20th century, our project will pick up almost where Spirit Wrestler leaves off by telling the story of how the Doukhobor community here has evolved since first coming to Saskatchewan (the eldest person interviewed for our project is my Grandmother Mabel Androsoff who was born in 1924, just 16 years after the events of the “Spirit Wrestler” play conclude).
Bottom line: if you are at all interested in Doukhobor history (or more generally, the history of early settlers on the Prairies), Spirit Wrestler is definitely worth seeing. It runs every night until March 31 (except for Sunday, March 25), and tickets are available online or at the theatre.