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Reviewed by Elizabeth Mitchell
In the late 1880s, a Dene medicine man prophesized a “burning vision” that will “come a long time in the future. It will come burning inside.” His people may have regarded him as a sapient observer of the future, but nobody else did.
The Dene seer’s burning vision turned out to be the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The source of those bombs – uranium – came from the bowels of Sahtu Dene territory in the Northwest Territories and it ripped many lives apart long before the bombs were created, let alone dropped.
In Burning Vision, Métis performer and playwright Marie Clements’ latest play, she traces the journey of uranium, using it as a metaphor for the poisonous effects on humans resulting from constructing lives on foundations so terribly out of synch with nature.
Clements covers a lot of ground, but she knows her territory and travels it deftly. Sketching a path from 1880 to 1945, she traces the journey of uranium from the land of her ancestors, down the Mackenzie River, across the United States, and landing in Hiroshima. En route she presents an allegory of the characters and lives and lies that are wrapped up in this substance’s discovery.
Clements dips her pen in numerous cross-cultural references, from cherry trees to caribou to Hank Williams, and writes with a magical irreverence that highlights this tragic saga. Her rich poetic style evokes parallels between Japanese and native myths – not unlike Yeats’ Noh Plays where Celtic and Japanese myths meld – finding connection through ancient truths and the power of the soil, except in this case the soil is literally explosive.
Marie Clements has divided her play into four movements, using leitmotifs to connect everything to the main metaphor. The text’s impact is lessened without the visual and aural accompaniment of the live production, but Clements’ power as a storyteller manages to rise above this limitation, making Burning Vision a lasting read.
This review first appeared in Quill & Quire (July, 2003).