By Carolyn Nesbitt-Larking
I’ve been getting that question a lot since she first came to life on stage a few weeks ago at Playwrights Cabaret. I’m not exactly sure where she will go next, but what I do know is that now I’ve stopped ignoring this woman’s voice stomping around in my head there is no way she can quietly slip into a drawer, forgotten. It’s no good for characters you believe in to not have their voices heard. It’s no good for writers either.
“Johannah” is about Johannah Donnelly, matriarch of the Irish family who emigrated from Ireland to Ontario who, on the night of February 4, 1880, along with other members of her family, was murdered by armed vigilantes and whose bodies were left in their torched farm house; the result of an enduring conflict between the Donnelly’s and many in the community of Biddulph township.
The history of the Donnelly clan is compelling enough to explore, and many have over the years, but I have always been intrigued by Johannah; maintaining she was marginalized to a mere footnote in this family history and, whenever mentioned, always in one-dimensional, derogatory terms. And as we know from history, this is not atypical of how many women would often be portrayed. If there was ever any hint of anger, violence or hatred found in a woman’s persona, that’s how she would forever be labelled, how she would always be perceived in such simplistic terms. But of course we know that is not always the fact. There are many compelling truths that define the complexities of a person.
“Johannah” is set in the final moments of her life. Crouched in the kitchen surrounded by the murdered members of her family, flames of her torched home edging closer, she finally speaks her truth, ” a time for confessions, repenting…and speaking truths.” Her opening line:
“Aw, yes,, a familiar place for us now, so it is. Here we are again, each of you: judge, jury, and, [pause] if you’re lucky by night’s end, executioner.”
“Johannah” is but one of the many voices that make up the Irish diaspora; one of the many historical stories that need to be told about the female immigrant experience. Just as we don’t hear enough of the many voices of women today, oftentimes lost in contemporary storytelling of global migration.
I had a great team supporting me throughout the evolution of Johanna; from my initial thoughts of her as a character, bringing her voice to the page, then on to the stage. Lisa O’Connell, Artistic Director, Pat the Dog Theatre Creation was a champion of “Johannah” from the beginning. My director, Megan Watson, Artistic Associate, The Grand Theatre, was a creative force of imagination and, finally, a special thank you to both Rachel Jones and Martha Zimmerman who embodied the spirit of “Johannah” in ways I hadn’t even considered. As you will note, I had an all female ensemble involved in this stage production. It was certainly not intentional nor artificially contrived. But merely a coming together of a unique group of individuals, each bringing their own unique approach to this play. Had I not written this play I would never have the opportunity to work with such talented women, or learn so much more about the act of creation.