God’s Lake lets community tell its story at Presentation House Theatre

Documentary theatre production explores the impact of girl’s unsolved murder in remote northern Manitoba

God’s Lake, Presentation House Theatre, until Feb. 23, 2020 at 7:30 p.m. plus Feb 23 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets available at 604-990-3474 or online at tickets.phtheatre.org.

At first Francesca Albright was surprised there wasn’t more of a reaction when police announced they’d arrested a suspect in the slaying of a 15-year-old girl.

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Leah Anderson was killed in 2013 after returning home to Gods Lake Narrows, a remote First Nations community located in northeastern Manitoba, for school holidays. On Jan. 4, Leah had left her house to go skating at the local arena. She never made it there. The Thompson Citizen reported that: “her severely beaten body was discovered on a remote trail two days later.”

After years of being unable to provide the grieving members of the small community with answers, it seemed police were getting somewhere when they announced they’d arrested a suspect – a 23-year-old male – in January 2017. Albright happened to be in Gods Lake conducting interviews and researching for a new play when the announcement was made a few years ago.

She remembers turning to her partner on the project, a Swampy Cree filmmaker originally from Gods Lake Narrows named Kevin Lee Burton, and expressing confusion over what she saw as a lack of enthusiasm over the arrest.

“I said, ‘Nobody’s talking about it,’ and he said, ‘They’re numb. This is normal,’” explains Albright.

Albright would come to learn that, tragically, what her collaborating partner told her was correct. The community members of Gods Lake Narrows had been down this road before – case in point: the suspect in Leah’s murder was released by police only a few days later. Her killer remains at large.

While the unsolved case has left a family and a community in turmoil, Albright and Burton set out to highlight the complex issues facing people living in remote communities, as well as their strength and resilience in the wake of terrible tragedy.

“I think people want to tell their stories and I think people want to be heard, and they want to be cared about to a certain extent,” says Albright.

In their play God’s Lake, Albright and Burton attempt to showcase the lived reality of people in the community using verbatim text culled from a series of interviews which Albright accrued over that six-month period in 2017.

While she says Leah’s case was the incubus for wanting to do the piece originally, the story ended up becoming just as much about the community as a whole.

“I went into it blind,” says Albright. “It ended up being about learning about the system. … Over the six months I would go back and I would interview the same people and things changed during that time in their lives and in the community and even to do with the case.”

She interviewed school teachers and police officers, store clerks and family members, who she describes as funny and warm and resilient and “open to sharing stories with me.”

Their stories – which Albright recorded and transcribed verbatim to be used in what she refers to as documentary theatre – are delivered in the form of monologues by four actors portraying a total of 24 different characters. The show also features stunning visual imagery captured by Burton, she says.

While the play attempts to get across what it can be like to live on a reserve or a remote community, it also looks at the institutions which have caused people living in small communities to be faced with such complex episodes.

“We started looking at the context of Leah, what happened to her, and just the systems and institutions that disrupt small communities. We looked at policing, we looked at safety, education, child and family services … it became really about all of those things.”

In conversation with the North Shore News, Albright makes sure to point out that there was recently justice served in the case of another murder that took place in Gods Lake Narrows. Last month, a 37-year-old man was found guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of Crystal Andrews, 22, in 2015.

Significantly, Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench – the province’s superior court – delivered the verdict in Gods Lake Narrows itself, marking the first time that a Queen’s Bench proceeding was held in a remote community. The Thompson Citizen reported that the arrangement was made so that Crystal’s family and residents in the community where the crime occurred could be present for the verdict.

“That was never done,” explains Albright.

On her and Burton’s play, Albright adds that although it addresses traumatic issues, it’s important because the people who were interviewed were “telling their own stories.”

“I think that’s why with documentary theatre, for me, it’s just a very pure thing.”

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