A rock opera spin on the Black Donnellys story is too timely

photo by David Cooper

Theatre | by Gregory Beatty

Rawlco Radio Hall
Until March 15

Many books and plays have been written about the infamous “Black Donnellys” massacre in Biddulph township in Ontario, and there have been more than a few movies and TV shows too. So when Jonathan Christenson, artistic director of Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre, was searching for a story to tackle, he initially considered the massacre untouchable.

Christenson was familiar with the tale from a boyhood spent in London, which is a short distance from Lucan where the massacre occurred on the night of Feb. 4, 1880.

“I left London when I was 11, but it was fairly well-known at the time,” he recalls. “My sense as a kid is that [the family] were kind of victims. But I think the general sense in the area was that the Donnellys were the bad guys.

“The thing that struck me was that there was one witness to the crime, and it was this boy who had hid under a bed in the house and managed to escape once it was set on fire.

“As a kid, that really resonated with me as I imagined someone my age witnessing this crime,” he says.

That memory, not surprisingly, stayed with Christenson, and ultimately prompted him to revisit the story a few years ago.

“I was struck by how it touched on so many things that relate to the world we’re living in in the first two decades of the 21st century, with the rise of vigilantism, the normalization of terror and the culture of fear and anger,” he says.

Using that as a springboard, Christenson wrote the rock opera Vigilante. The musical debuted in Edmonton in 2015 to rave reviews, and recently completed a well-received run in London. Later this month, it will play at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

But first, it’s Saskatoon audiences’ turn to be wowed.

History Lesson

In keeping with Christenson’s boyhood sympathy for the Donnellys, he wrote Vigilante from their perspective. By any measure, theirs was a hardscrabble life. Parents James and Johannah met and married in Ireland, then immigrated to Canada in 1844 to escape grinding poverty and a sectarian feud that had plagued their county for two centuries.

Unable to afford land, they squatted on 100 acres belonging to an absentee landlord, where they carved out a farm from the wilderness and raised seven sons. In 1855, the landlord sold the land to a third party, which sparked a 25-year stretch of violent confrontation, arson, sabotage, theft and other criminal misdeeds — including murder.

A Peace Society was formed to address the turmoil in Lucan (which was exacerbated by rivalries from the original Irish feud). Later renamed the Vigilance Society, it was this group which — fortified by drink —descended on the Donnelly homestead and beat James and Johannah, son Tom, and visiting niece Bridget to death and set fire to the house.

The group then walked to a nearby farm, where they shot and killed son John.

Arrests were made and two trials held, but despite eyewitness testimony from Johnny O’Connor — who was staying with the Donnellys that awful night — no one was ever convicted.

Artistic License

When Christenson was researching Vigilante, he says, he relied heavily on the work of Ray Fazakas.

“He’s a lawyer who has done extensive research into the family and has pulled a lot of historical documents to produce a couple of encyclopedic books about the Donnellys and Lucan.”

That was just the starting point, though.

“With all the works I do, I do a lot of research, but then I try to set that research aside as much as possible,” says Christenson. “I’m not interested in writing an historical treatment. This is inspired by the Donnelly story, but there are a lot of departures.”

One of the biggest departures, obviously, was Christenson’s decision to stage Vigilante as a rock opera.

“The music and design are both meant to have echoes of the period and the traditional [Celtic] roots of the story, but really land in a more contemporary setting,” he says. “The music has a pretty heavy rock edge to it, which was very much about trying to capture the danger of the Donnelly family and the world they lived in.

“There’s a raw, visceral edge to it with a masculine energy — and it’s angry. This is a story about anger and revenge, and what we do with it.”

Modern Parallels

Christenson says it’s been “fascinating” over the last few years to watch as realities that played out in the Donnellys’ time have surfaced again.

“When I started writing one of the things I was most struck by was the experience of the Donnellys as a family that was fleeing the troubles in Ireland and looking for a better life,” he says.

“At the time they weren’t using this type of language, but really, they were refugees. And so many of the people who came to this country at that time were refugees. When I was reading their story, I was reminded of just how terrible things must’ve been for them in the Old Country to make that difficult journey and launch this new life.”

Terrorism, vigilantism and disregard for due process and constitutional rights are other modern touchstones of the tragedy that resonate with Christenson.

“For liberal-minded people, which I think is what’s driven the modern age, we thought we were evolving away from that world. Maybe we haven’t been vigilant enough about guarding against it because we seem to be seeing the rise of this anarchic thinking that’s very scary.

“I think the movements that are out there now play to our fears — and they’re deep-seated fears,” Christenson concludes. “We all have them, and that’s why I find the Donnelly story really interesting. It tackles these issues on a very human level with the fundamental desire we have to protect that which we love and how, when we’re wronged, things can flare up.”