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Play takes on dark period in Alberta history

Jennie's Story a stark look at eugenics movement

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jul 02, 2014 06:00 am

IN YOUR FACE – Jennie's Story looks at the eugenics movement and how it devastated people. Syrell Wilson (left) plays Edna Delevault, Jennie's mother, and Heather Brook plays Jennie McGrane.
IN YOUR FACE – Jennie's Story looks at the eugenics movement and how it devastated people. Syrell Wilson (left) plays Edna Delevault, Jennie's mother, and Heather Brook plays Jennie McGrane.
DOUGLAS STEWART PHOTOGRAPHY/Supplied photo

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Preview

Jennie’s Story
July 2 to 12
Walterdale Theatre
10322 – 83 Ave.
Tickets: $12 to $18 Call 780-420-1757 or online at tixonthesquare.ca

The eugenics movement is something few Albertans want to talk about. It’s almost the reverse of monkey-see, monkey-do. Perhaps if we don’t speak about this dark period in provincial politics, then maybe it will go away.

But for the victims who were sterilized under the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta, the pain will never go away. How do you deal emotionally and psychologically with an issue that is unsolvable?

Former University of Alberta drama professor Alex Hawkins, and an ongoing director at Walterdale Theatre, tends to direct powerful plays with strong female characters that ask uncomfortable questions.

Hawkins’ 2012 production of The Love of a Nightingale, a terrifying modern adaptation of a Greek tragedy involving rape, mutilation and murder, left audiences gasping out loud.

His follow-up, Jennie’s Story opening tonight at Walterdale for a 10-day run, is a tale that although not quite as visceral, still makes the blood run cold.

It’s the story of Jennie McGrane, a young woman very much in love with her husband. The two desperately want children, however she is having difficulty conceiving.

But then Jennie discovers that as a teenager she was sterilized, although doctors told her that her appendix was being removed. How she deals with the betrayal of loved ones and the system is the crux of this production.

Hawkins initially saw Jennie’s Story at the university in the 1990s when Paul Gelineau from Keyano College was invited to guest direct.

“I didn’t like the production. I felt he made some bad choices, but I was intrigued by the play. I got a copy and said ‘this is a play to keep in mind,’” said Hawkins.

He dishes out anger at the eugenics movement, which was born in England and turned into the nastiest of businesses by Nazis during the Second World War.

In 1920s Alberta, those diagnosed with being “feeble-minded” were operated on.

“Feeble-minded was never a medical diagnosis. It was catch-all term and a lot of people were caught in the net,” Hawkins says.

Candidates for sterilization included prostitutes, people suffering depression, the homeless and patients in mental institutions as well as low functioning individuals.

“In one case a woman with eight children was abandoned by her husband. She came to the attention of the government and ended up in Ponoka.”

In the early years, sterilization required physicians to follow a set of guidelines.

“By the 1930s when Jennie comes along, they were rubber stamping everyone.”

In the play’s backstory, Hawkins made several directorial choices to assist his interpretation. Early on he decided that Jennie has a learning disability, possibly dyslexia.

Labeled as “slow” at school, she is held back for several grades and at age 16 she takes her mother’s place cleaning house for the village priest, Father Eddie Fabrizeau.

She is a lively young girl and he seduces her.

“He’s very conflicted. He bears enormous guilt but can’t seem to stop. There comes a point he decides to blame her. Because she’s promiscuous, he decides she has to go to Ponoka and he takes her there.”

At the time the law let you leave if “you were deemed fit to return to society.” Sterilization was one way to be “deemed fit.” Father Eddie asks Edna, Jennie’s mother, for consent and she signs the papers.

Several years later Jennie meets Harry, a local farmer.

“She’s very happy with Harry. He’s a generous, outgoing, positive individual and they’ve been trying to have children for a year.”

At this point the play opens and the dog pile hits the fan.

Just as Jennie speaks up for herself, so Hawkins is also speaking up and reminding us to protect the vulnerable and to value our freedom to choose.

“It’s not enough for people to say it was the norm at the time and therefore we can’t criticize. When you go back and look at the times, there were always voices of dissent. If there is even one dissenting voice, then I think we can criticize and judge. The Catholic Church, a giant worldwide organization, said it was out of control and in favour of individual liberty. In Ontario in the late 1920s, the Catholic Church objected so heartily, the government backed away and never implemented it.”

Jennie’s Story is a heavy dose of realism.

“If you enjoy dramas, if you enjoy characters in difficult situations, it seems this play is right up your alley. It’s a serious play and the subject matter is important.”


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