Tom Wilson’s memoir-turned-musical brings ‘celebration of Indigenous identity’ to Hamilton stage

When Mohawk artist Tom Wilson was writing his best-selling memoir Beautiful Scars, he’d often read passages out loud to himself, to hear how they sounded “in the air.”

This week, Wilson will watch actors sing some of those same words to hundreds of people — as the musical inspired by his memoir, and of the same name, premiers at Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius on April 24.

“Hearing them emoted from people who have been generous enough to give everything they’ve got to every word, man, that’s an emotional journey and one that I wasn’t expecting,” the homegrown music icon told CBC Hamilton. 

Creating the musical in Hamilton was a natural fit, said Wilson. 

His hometown has inspired his rock music and art for decades. As chronicled in his memoir, Wilson was raised on East 36th Street by a couple who he later discovered were not his biological parents.

The musical will follow Wilson as he discovers his Indigenous heritage and then traces his roots back to the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawà:ke, just south of Montreal.

“I’m offering to the theatre a celebration of Indigenous identity and celebration of self-discovery,” Wilson said.

“It rarely happens. The Indigenous world does not necessarily feel welcome in the theatre experience mainly because it is such a deeply, deeply rooted colonial institution.” 

Director Mary Francis Moore, left, and Wilson at a rehersal for the musical that will premier at Theatre Aquarius on April 24, 2024. (Dahlia Katz)

‘Unapologetically Indigenous’

The play will be among the first “unapologetically Indigenous” autobiographical musicals in the country, said Mary Francis Moore, Theatre Aquarius’s artistic director, who’s also directing Beautiful Scars

When she first read the book in 2017, she said she was not only “shocked and blown away by the story” but also convinced it was made to be a musical.

“Tom is such a poet and words of his books feel like lyrics sometimes and you just kind of felt this musical underscore,” Moore said. “You feel music in every story he tells.”

Wilson has been a member of Canadian bands like Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse and currently Lee Harvey Osmond, but he was clear he didn’t want the play to become a rock star biopic, said Moore. 

Instead, Wilson’s character, played by Métis actor Sheldon Elter, finds himself in different situations where he’s flooded by visuals, music and memories that eventually lead him to the truth, Moore said. 

two men stand facing each other
Wilson, left, works with Sheldon Elter, a Métis actor who’s playing Wilson in Beautiful Scars. (Dahlia Katz)

Wilson created the musical alongside Shaun Smyth, an actor born in Glasgow and raised in Calgary. Wilson also wrote the musical score, while his son Thompson Wilson Shaw, 31, plays the younger version of Wilson.

Shaw, also a musician, started travelling with Wilson when he was 11 years old and “grew up backstage,” Wilson said. They’ve collaborated together on many artistic projects, although acting wasn’t one of them until now. 

“I didn’t know that he could act, and I don’t think he knew if he could act, but he can — so that worked out really good,” said Wilson. 

If there’s a message Wilson wants to leave the audience with, it’s that Canada can do better for Indigenous people.

“This country is responsible for some of the grossest and most inhumane attempts to wipe out a civilization in the history of mankind,” he said. “It would be really wise for us to start having a conversation about this and taking some action.”  

The play runs from April 24 to May 11.

LISTEN: Tom Wilson and the musical’s co-creator Shaun Smyth discuss Beautiful Scars with CBC’s Here and Now: 

Here and Now Toronto11:55Thursday Theatre ticket goes to “Beautiful Scars,” a new musical about Tom Wilson

Artist’s Tom Wilson’s discovery of his Mohawk Identity is getting the musical treatment in Hamilton. Wilson and his co-creator Shaun Smyth are behind the new musical, “Beautiful Scars.” It’s showing at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton. For our Thursday afternoon theatre tickets, Tom Wilson, and the musical’s co-creator Shaun Smyth were in studio to tell us more.

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