Émilie Monnet’s ‘Okinum’ forages for fervent dreams

On Sept. 2, Okinum made its English debut at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre to a sold-out audience. Originally a 2018 award-winning novel by Canadian writer and performance artist Émilie Monnet, the English version of Okinum was adapted to the stage as part of Centaur’s Brave New Looks program and was co-produced by Onishka Productions and the Imago Theatre. 

Inspired by the power of dreams, Monnet wrote the novel after experiencing three recurrent dreams involving giant beavers, who communicated powerful sentiments of belonging and healing which she could not fully grasp, but felt impassioned to express. Okinum portrays these dreams through an interactive performance, inviting the audience to decipher the giant beavers’ enigmatic guidance by observing Monnet’s personal reenactment and exploration of their words. 

In the Centaur Theatre’s darkly lit auditorium, Monnet and her co-performer Jackie Gallant boldly act out a non-linear tale of self-discovery, intermingling scenes of Monnet speaking to her Anishinaabeg ancestors with representations of her profound dreams. The show’s climax occurs when Monnet portrays herself as a giant beaver, advancing on all fours and capturing an energy that hypnotized the audience into forgetting her human identity. Background noises such as the recordings of live beavers further transport the audience into a vivid aural environment—like that of a dream. Finally, Monnet performs an original song to honour the beavers. 

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Monnet emphasized the importance of her identity as a member of the Anishinaabeg nation to Okinum‘s creation. For example, her performance interweaves the French and English settler-colonialist languages with Anishinaabemowin, the language that Monnet’s ancestors spoke—and one of the many languages spoken by the Indigenous Peoples who lived in what is now called Montreal.

“I wanted to have the three languages coexist in the performance, the same way they coexist in me,” Monnet said. “I want for people to hear the language, which is so rarely shown on stage, and to actually experience the language born on this territory. They were eradicated by the government policies, but those were the languages that really connect us.”

This use of language extends to the play’s title, which means “dam” in Anishinaabemowin. The title not only references the wooden structures built by beavers but also the barriers placed upon Indigenous Peoples by colonialist powers, such as residential schools and reservation systems. In exploring the ethereal messages from the beavers in Okinum, Monnet deconstructs cultural walls, educating the audience about her own Anishinaabeg identity.

“My hope is to connect the beaver fur trade with the realities of many Indigenous women today,” Monnet said. “To reclaim my language and heritage [is] very powerful, [especially] how it solidifies you.” 

Okinum’s zoomorphic performances continue until Sept. 11 at the Centaur Theatre.  

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