How does memory work? It the question at the center of 887, a daring new solo work by Robert Lepage that journeys into the childhood of the accomplished playwright, actor, and director to consider what made him, why certain things remain and others fade away. Performing within a miniature replica of the apartment building that was his home in Québec City—887 Murray Avenue—Lepage employs scale and light in innovative ways as he builds the public and private spaces of his memory. The set transforms to reveal scenes from the past, operating like a doll house at times and a shadow or projection screen at others—even opening up to reveal rooms set to the scale of the life-sized performer.
In his director’s note, Lepage explains how the show developed from a personal story to a more nuanced theatrical reflection on the complexities of the social environment that made him:
I never would have guessed that the exploration of personal memory I embarked on to create this show would lead me to the complexities of the class struggle and identity crisis of 1960s-era Québec. It’s as though the most distant memories of personal events are incomplete if they don’t take into account the social context in which they happened. This show is, therefore, not the discourse of an adult promoting a cause but rather a journey into a pre-adolescent’s memory, where the political and the poetic are often conflated.
For those unfamiliar with this milieu, 1960 marked the rebirth of the Québec sovereignty movement. Independence became the goal of a number of political and activist groups, including the Rassemblement pour l’Indépendance Nationale (RIN), whose members organized nonviolent protests and direct actions, and the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), whose members were responsible for more than 95 bombings including the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969 and the kidnapping and murder of labor minister Pierre Laporte in 1970. These acts led to the War Measures Act; Québec’s streets became highly policed, even militarized, and 465 citizens were arrested and held without charge. Political organizing for Québec sovereignty persisted before and after this moment of militant uprising, but the struggle between predominantly working-class French Canadians and the English-speaking upper class was extreme. The English language was seen as a tool of oppression by those seeking independence.
The staging of Lepage’s journey begins with his attempt to memorize the poem “Speak White,” written by Michèle Lalonde and recited by the poet during a 1970 event in Montreal commemorating the anniversary of La Nuit de la Poésie (Night of Poetry). The phrase was used by English-speaking Canadians to intimidate French Canadians, and the poem is a protest against the English-speaking upper class, emblematic at the time of the Québec nationalist movement. As Lepage struggles to memorize the poem in the opening moments of the show, he turns to 887 Murray Avenue as a memory palace, a mnemonic device that involves visualizing the placement of information in different rooms of a palace that one can revisit in the mind. The text of the Lalonde poem leads Lepage to pass through places that live in his memory. In this way, a collective Canadian experience of the 1960s and ’70s is made intimate only to then be shared with his audience as he moves through his memory, spatialized and literalized on stage.
Lepage revealed that he surprised himself in the making of 887, and that feeling of discovery is central to the show. Instead of viewing the theatrical world he builds around himself with adult eyes, accustomed to the workings of social environments, Lepage explores the consciousness of his child-self. He invites the audience to discover the collective history of Québec through his fragmented memories. Instead of looking at the past as a chronology of fixed events, Lepage places himself within the past as an emergent space, that is, a space where the status quo is not inevitable but change seems possible and the future unclear. The artist’s gesture of performing the past in this way is a powerful historiographical move.
French theorist Michel de Certeau understood historiography as an encounter with the past that forces a researcher to examine how she came into being. Unlike the common mode of historical writing that weaves a narrative based upon certifiable evidence, historiographical thinking interrogates the relationship between the present and the past, the researcher and the text to be examined. Rather than relying upon a stable personal identity or commonsense notions of how things happened, the historiographer travels over the landscape that brought the present into being and poses questions to elements in the landscape. For instance: Why do I remember these particular fragments and not others? How does a photograph or a poem represent the past? Could things have turned out differently? The brilliance of Lepage’s work is his ability to make a spatial practice of his past and to follow his thinking fully, allowing himself to become vulnerable and surprise himself in the process.
887 offers multiple ways for the audience to enter into the theatrical experience. Lepage brilliantly moves from the personal to the social and back to again, exploring relationships with his family members in their cramped apartment on Murray Avenue, considering loss of memory and deeply examining his own psychology. As a masterpiece of narrative and visual design, it will leave audience members with images that continue to provoke and inspire beyond the bounds of the theatrical space. First performed in 2015 in Toronto, 887 invited Canadians to consider the collective memory of a divisive moment in a shared past. Lepage treats the events of the 1960s and ’70s with an incredible sense of care and curiosity, casting new light on the familiar events of political struggle. Now as Lepage performs in Minneapolis in 2018, the work will evoke a different set of meanings and questions. Minnesotans who have little knowledge of the Québec sovereignty movement will certainly learn a great deal from Lepage’s narrative, but his work will also resonate in our current political climate.
As divides between insiders and outsiders in the United States become more visible and politicized (from immigration debates, the public rise of white supremacy, visibility of police violence, etc.), the message of the poem “Speak White” is important to consider: how is racism embedded in culture and how does one rebel against systems of oppression when the very language we speak reproduces inequality? English-speaking audience members should note that Lepage’s play is performed in both English and French (with English subtitles), so that the problem of language is built, by necessity, into the performance context. This performance of translation, as it were, allows Twin Cites audiences to consider how English functions in the United States to maintain the boundaries of citizenship and participation in social life.