Rita MacNeil’s music never drifted my way when I was a child. I didn’t know her, but was still foolish enough and insensitive enough to make the same “jokes” as the other kids. Because we fear we won’t find a community to belong to, we let ourselves say and do things we wouldn’t want to be said or done to us, just to fit in.
MacNeil’s music never drifted my way as a young man. I was far too busy trying to survive. I did hear her music in passing on radio and television. I only remember hearing two of her songs: “Working Man,” a song I didn’t know I could relate to until much later in life; and “Flying on Your Own,” a song that in hindsight, seemed to be sung as a tribute to my mother.
So often, we see celebrities as two-dimensional. It is unfair, but it is the truth of it. Maybe that is why we can so easily idolize them and then, on the turn of a dime, vilify them. It is like they are not even human to us because we don’t get to see their humanity. Dear Rita gives a clearer picture of who Rita MacNeil was and is to us still.
Michelle (Bouey), Sheldon (Elter), Lindsay (Kyte), Kristi (Hansen), Melissa (MacKenzie), and Brendan (Wall) become MacNeil’s spirit as they guide us through the highs and lows of her life. I use the performers’ first names as if I have known them all along. But I don’t know them or other things they have done. I feel I can speak of them now as friends, because they became a conduit for me to connect to someone who sees us in the best kind of light, that light being truth.
I was lucky to see Dear Rita twice. Each time, it felt as though new. The excitement of being out in public again, being able to once again enjoy other artists’ endeavours into creativity, certainly added to the evening. A good show can keep that momentum going. But a great show—well there is something special when you are in a room full of people whose hearts are moving in the same direction. Dear Rita is a great show.
From the simple set and the colours of the lighting, to the music arranged to feel new yet so familiar, Dear Rita is a show that gives you a lot more than you might expect. It gives you a chance to see MacNeil a little more fully and when you see her you can see the better part of yourself being reflected back to you.
Now, as an older man who has become far more patient and tolerant under the broad-brimmed red hat, I can finally drift in the music MacNeil gave us and not have to miss out on the insight she left behind.
Dear Rita is on stage at Confederation Centre of the Arts until August 6.