-by Rebecca Silver Slayter
Chéticamptains speak of “les quatorze vieux”: the 14 old ones, who ended decades of hardship and exile with their arrival in Chéticamp, which they founded in 1785. No women are numbered among the 14 leaders who signed their names to the Crown land grant of 7,000 acres, but the wives, mothers, and daughters of the 26 families residing there at the time played no less an important part in its history. One of those women was Jeanne Dugas. Jeanne d’Acadie, which premiered on Friday at Chéticamp’s Place des Arts, Père Anselme-Chiasson told her story.
“If only we could turn back the pages of time, walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and meet this heroine...who played a vital role in the survival of the Acadians that founded Chéticamp,” wrote Rosie Aucoin-Grace in this newspaper last year. Those in the audience at Jeanne d’Acadie, which ran from Friday to Sunday, came very close to having that wish fulfilled. It is difficult to imagine how Dugas’s story—or the churning history that shaped it—could be more powerfully or compassionately realized than it was on that stage.
Written and directed by Paul Gallant, the play depicts an elderly Dugas in her Chéticamp home (rendered as a simple set evoking old homestead walls and furnishings). It begins after a visit from the Quebec bishop whose account of Dugas is the basis for what we know of her today, and the starting point for the many historians whose research has helped further expand it. After his departure, Dugas’s granddaughter Eulalie asks to hear the untold story behind that account.
Dugas was born in Louisbourg in 1731. During her life, the upheavals of war hurtled her back and forth across what would become the Maritime provinces. She was in Grand Pré when Louisbourg fell in 1745, and didn’t return to Ile Royale (as Cape Breton was then known) until it was reclaimed by the French in 1748. There, she married her husband, Pierre Bois, but after the second fall of Louisbourg, they were forced to flee to New Brunswick with their family, before being brought back to Nova Scotia as prisoners. When peace at last prevailed, she and her family returned to Cape Breton, settling in Arichat, only to be driven from their homes once again with the outbreak of the American Revolution. After this final journey, Dugas and her family returned once more to Cape Breton, where they would remain, becoming one of the founding families of Chéticamp.
Onstage, Dugas (played by Gilberte Cormier) tells Eulalie (Makenzie Dunn) that history, but then she provides insight into the lives that got caught within the details of all those battles and dates. She speaks of friendships cut short by violence, of the children who couldn’t survive such unrelenting hardship. Of the hunger, the fear, the heartache ,and the grief. After recounting the deaths of her two-year-old twins in her arms, Dugas says, “I was enraged at God. That he in his great mercy could not – would not – find a little corner of this big world for us, a place where we could live in peace.” [This passage is quoted from an English translation of the production, which was performed in French.]
Dunn plays the role of the dutiful granddaughter with grace, gently asking the questions on the mind of those in the audience, while Cormier captures Dugas with a breathtaking truth. The part was deeply personal to Cormier, who recalls rehearsing lines in tears on her deck. “I live sort of almost in the woods,” she explains after the show, “so that's what I'm looking at, and I kept thinking, What if you had to hide?” Though the part of Dugas is enormous, Cormier says, “It was actually the easiest part I've ever done, in terms of learning the lines, because it's a story. I just had to tell it.”
Cormier’s portrayal of Dugas’s dignity, her humour, her bewilderment at the way the colonial wars entangled the lives of her family, and especially, her grief at her immeasurable loss is note-perfect. History can seem austere, a lifeless cumulation of timelines and maps, but in that theatre, it felt private, personal, and alive.
Huddled together in stillness at the corner of the stage, the quiet intimacy of the scene between Cormier and Dunn is a poignant contrast to the events depicted behind them. A map tracing Dugas’s endless journey is projected on a large screen, between vivid, impressionistic background scenes beautifully rendered by Stéphanie Godin. In front of that screen, eleven young actors enact the events Dugas describes, playing everything from children to soldiers: Ceiligh MacDougall, Stacey Baker, Hanna Harris, Théo Delaney, Félix Williatte-Battet, Stéphane Delaney, Emma Harris, Maria Aucoin, Eryn LeFort, Summer Deveau, and Alia Poirier. With simple actions and gestures, these young actors evoke the terror and tragedy of le grand dérangement, and all the strife that preceded and followed it. But they also capture the moments in between the hardship—even amidst such circumstances, people married, gave birth, celebrated, played, lived, and loved.
The final moments of the production are its most powerful. Dotted lines appear across the map projected on stage, tracking the many journeys and refuges of Dugas and her family, from start to finish. The lines are so many that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one exodus from another, and the full truth of what Dugas and the Acadians of her time endured resounds.
And then, after the dotted line reaches Cascapédia, the last community where Dugas and her family took shelter, a red line begins to slowly and steadily cross the sea. It arrives, at last, in Chéticamp. In that instant, one almost understands what it must have meant to arrive to a home, after decades of wandering and loss; what this community meant to those who built it, and who raised the first generation of Chéticamptains, the ancestors of many of those watching from the audience.
In the last scene, having told her story, Dugas dies. A voiceover by Eulalie describes her grandmother’s final resting place, a tomb beneath an apple tree where she will forever remain, at the end of all her travels. Godin’s backdrop depicts the tree with outstretched roots, reaching deep and wide into the soil beneath. And as the 11 young actors, silhouetted in seated positions, turn to gaze at the screen, the names of Dugas’s descendents appear over the image, one at a time, until the screen is filled.
The audience watched, transfixed, and then rose to their feet to applaud this superb piece of theatre, which brought to life, for its brief duration, one of the great women of Acadie.
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