Keith Barker. This is How We Got Here. Playwrights Canada Press, 2017. 104pp. ISBN: 9781770918221.
Tara Beagan. In Spirit. Playwrights Canada Press, 2017. 64pp. ISBN: 9781770918061.
Cliff Cardinal. Huff & Stitch. Playwrights Canada Press, 2017. 120pp. ISBN: 9781770917460.
Yvette Nolan. Medicine Shows: Indigenous Performance Culture. Playwrights Canada Press, 2015. 184pp. ISBN: 9781770913455.
Yvette Nolan. The Unplugging. Playwrights Canada Press, 2014. 80pp. ISBN: 9781770911321.
Jean O'Hara, editor. Two-Spirit Acts: Queer Indigenous Performances. Playwrights Canada Press, 2013. 160pp. ISBN: 9781770911840.
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, editor. Indian Act: Residential School Plays. Playwrights Canada Press, 2018. 392pp. ISBN: 9781770919143.
Both North and South of the Great Lakes, literary critics and thinkers such as Julian NoiseCat and Madeline Sayat have been hailing a "New Native Renaissance." Yet, while whitestream U.S. theatres have recently been waking up to Indigenous playwrights such as Larissa FastHorse, Mary Kathryn Nagle, and DeLanna Studi, play development, production, and publication in Canada has long been ahead of their southern counterparts, as evidenced by the output of Playwrights Canada Press. Even so, the press's recent publications particularly demonstrate the variety and strength of current First Nations, Inuit, and Métis playwrights.
Medicine Shows: Indigenous Performance Culture, by Métis playwright / dramaturg / director Yvette Nolan, provides a critical counterpart to these plays, demonstrating the web of interconnections between artists, development processes, and production companies as a fractal of "the interconnectedness of all things." After all, as Nolan writes, Indigenous theatre calls attention to connection, and reconnects "through the act of remembering, through building community, and by negotiating solidarities across communities" (1-3). As Nolan draws upon her prodigious memory as a longtime participant and former Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, she navigates the web of genealogy of young actors who become playwrights, young playwrights who become leaders, and transcultural failures whose honesty encourages new and more informed attempts. Her approach contextualizes contemporary dramas by Indigenous playwrights within the playwrights' own cultural systems, but also acknowledges both the incredible diversity within the "Indigenous" category, and the diversity of dramaturgical methods employed by contemporary Indigenous playwrights. Nolan's critical overview of contemporary Indigenous drama eludes some of the stereotypes common in a settler lens, instead organizing her chapters around concepts such as "survivance," "remembrance," "ceremony," "making community," and "the eighth fire": this last title designating Nolan's vision of the next task as reciprocal and informed collaboration between Indigenous and arrivant artists. Nolan exemplifies her description of the Indigenous artist as "a conduit between the past and the future," and both past and future loom large in these recent plays (Nolan Medicine Shows 3).
For instance, Two-Spirit Acts: Queer Indigenous Performance, edited by Jean O'Hara, includes new solo work by Spiderwoman co-founder Muriel Miguel (Kuna / Rappahannock), as well as by Kent Monkman (Cree), and Waawaate Fobister (Anishinaabe). O'Hara's introduction and Tomson Highway's foreword, "Where is God's Wife? Or is he gay?," delineate the existence of queer Indigenous community, and encircle that community (or, more accurately, communities) within the broader community of Indigeneity. Miguel's Hot 'n' Soft begins with a quilt backdrop, like many of Spiderwoman's performances, but quickly departs into a romp of lesbian discovery, where a hairy woman's body reminds Miguel of bored Coyote, and female Coyote sends the performer back to a giggling telephone flirtation. Miguel simultaneously embraces her role as Indigenous theatrical elder and refuses to let that role predict her body or her life. Meanwhile, Kent Monkman's diva drag persona Miss Chief Eagle Testickle dons stilettos and feathers to directly address enduring misrepresentations of Indigenous peoples by holding a Séance with painters Eugène Delacroix, Paul Kane, and George Catlin, where she first eviscerates them and then invites the audience to "bring back" the "dance to the Berdache," or Two-Spirit, in club-track remix. In Taxonomy of the European Male, as the title suggests, Miss Chief flips the script to reveal the absurdity of supposedly scientific racialization.
As for the more recent past, of course the dominance of the "Truth and Reconciliation" process that shadows all recent discussions of Indigeneity in what is currently known as Canada spills into Indigenous theatrical creations. After all, while Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), convened as a result of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2007, "concluded" in 2015 with a lengthy report, Indigenous playwrights have long been grappling with the ongoing colonial legacies of the residential school system. Nolan calls the school system "an identifiable villain with a contained timeline," not separate from the larger effects of colonization, but more "obviously intentional and institutionalized" (Nolan Medicine Shows 13). Judging by the recent publications of Playwrights Canada Press, however, recent plays by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis playwrights make those connections between current issues and intergenerational trauma, particularly from residential schools, even more explicitly.
Theatre has often played a role in the difficult processes of restorative justice instigated by TRCs around the world. Art has the advantage of taking multiple approaches to testimony, as well as experimenting with multiple reactions, as Jane Taylor has noted in reflecting upon her play Ubu and the Truth Commission, created with Handspring Puppets for the South African TRC. Even within the collection Indian Act: Residential School Plays, edited by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, styles and approaches run a wide gamut: from Nolan's Dear Mr. Buchwald, both a multimedia documentary of Nolan's mother's life and a bitterly blunt account of their family's struggle to receive her survivor settlement; to Michael Greyeyes' (Plains Cree) Nôhkom, another first-person, yet lyrical effort to recover what he can of his grandmother's story from scraps and memories; to Tara Beagan (Ntlaka'pamux)'s They Know Not What They Do, where characters both testify as elders and dramatize their early childhood experiences; to the naturalistic young group casts of Larry Guno (Nisga'a)'s Bunk #7, set in a residential school in the 1960s, and Curtis Peeteetuce (Cree)'s kihēw, set in 2007 in the shell of an old school, where teens find more than they bargained for looking for ghosts; to the most naturalistic and yet stunningly open-ended two-person confrontation between former student and former teacher, God and the Indian, by Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibway).
God and the Indian encapsulates many pitfalls and doubts inevitable in a reconciliation process that relies upon memory and the trauma inherent in describing trauma. His title refers to the play's only two characters: a boarding school survivor who traces all the pain of her life to her abuse at school, and a now-celebrated priest whom she believes to be her abuser. At the same time, the title points to the duo's imbrication in a huge system and a long history of church-driven cultural genocide. Taylor skillfully draws the audience into the survivor's hope that truth will lead to reconciliation and peace; instead, as the priest insists that it wasn't him, she starts to question her own memories, and we as audience start to question whether any resolution could be possible. We become complicit in the desire for story patterns and tidy endings, for reconciliation at the expense of restorative justice. Taylor leaves us as unsettled as history.
Tara Beagan and Yvette Nolan's contributions to the anthology exemplify the power of multimedia technologies in performing archives. In They Know Not What They Do, Beagan's actors play their characters both as small children and as aged survivors - except for the children who did not live to age. The cruelties of inspections, hair cutting, stern incomprehensible speeches, punishment, and suicide play mostly through multimedia images. Although moments of theatrical beauty intercut these horrors (notably an aurora borealis springing forth from a suitcase), the play's tone remain elegiac from the children's first day of school through their testimony. As one says, "Seems unfair to be sitting here telling my story when so many never will. But... hopefully our telling will honor them somehow... Those schools did what they were supposed to do. Took us from home... For good" (St. Bernard 157-9). Beagan's stage directions actually include the directive "hammer home some archival images," and her play ends with "Harper's apology on sardonic loop"; after the testimonies of what can never be undone or returned, the repeated "And we are sorry. And we apologize" rings bitterly (St. Bernard 159). Within the students' survival, though, and their telling, live their ancestors' stories. What they need, what these plays provide, is the "string to build [their] stories on" (St. Bernard 152).
Meanwhile, Nolan makes use of projections to share documents and photographs in counterpoint with her letter to the lawyer who worked with her family to secure her mother's settlement as a residential school survivor. Commissioned by a graduate law students' association from Native Earth Performing Arts, the spoken letter draws attention to the years-long process of securing the settlement, and to the system that creates even greater obstacles to families with fewer resources, a system that continues to make money "off the First People of this land, still, after all this time, all the while complaining that we should just get over it, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and stop being a drain on the resources" (St. Bernard 353-4). It's not about the money, Nolan's speaker insists, she's given away her share, and yet the money exemplifies the ongoing exploitation of her family. Meanwhile, the archival projections also insist that it's about the people: photographs of her mother insist upon her unique humanity, from her teenage years to her young wedding to her status card to her young children to her grown children. The projections also allow educational text to intersperse with the reading of words from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, summarizing the TRC process and its findings, and the four principles for "basis for a renewed relationship: recognition, respect, sharing, and responsibility." Nolan's play, and the anthology, end with "The Road Forward" (also a chapter heading in Medicine Shows). The Road Forward, Nolan's projected photos insist, includes Indigenous people, living and working and being in the present in all their variety. As her stage directions celebrate, "there are so many of them" (St. Bernard 355-6).
Like many composers in a non-mainstream, or non-whitestream community, Indigenous playwrights have to attend to insider and outsider audiences - or make an intentional decision to let non-Indigenous audiences not understand. Nolan describes the course of Indigenous art about the residential school system as a "long and often painful process of education for a Canadian public that was largely oblivious of its existence" (Nolan, Medicine Shows 14). The plays included in Indian Act anticipate a spectrum of audiences, working toward healing and community building all the way around the eighth fire. Editor St. Bernard highlights the international responsibilities of settler-colonial governments by including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 11, in the collection's appendix. In this context it serves as both documentation of Indigenous rights and a call for settler readers to continue their education and work for equity beyond the limits of the official TRC process. The title, meanwhile, refers to the Indian Act of 1884 that created the residential school systems. The titular play on words gives agency to the Indigenous actors but also calls up the long stage tradition of redface, acts of representation whose stage popularity affect the treatment of real Indigenous people in daily life. Editor Donna-Michelle St. Bernard prefaces the collection with a thoughtful meditation on what she didn't learn in the Canadian school system as a young immigrant, what she didn't know even as an adult theatre practitioner, yet what she now sees continuing in, for example, "the short life and tragic death of Tina Fontaine while in government care," proving that "while the language of the Indian Act policies have been revised and redacted, the institutional culture they represent is implicit, pervasive." As a non-Indigenous ally, St. Bernard wields her "we" gloriously, speaking to her fellow arrivant Canadians (and by extension North Americans), "Maybe we can all excuse ourselves for what we weren't told, as a child nation. Also, maybe it's time to grow up, to take responsibility... What happened here is part of our story, a part that is context to all other struggles in this place" (St. Bernard x-xi). She acknowledges survivors' right to their silence, and the generosity of their testimony and their research. In a "dialogue" preface, Daniel David Moses (Delaware / Tuscarora) declares that the collection's plays can "show us how to heal" (St. Bernard vii).
Melanie J. Murray (Métis) particularly connects contemporary lives with historic injustice by beginning with a protagonist who doesn't even know her Indigenous ancestry. In A Very Polite Genocide or The Girl Who Fell to Earth, Josie has an unexpected emotional response when giving her university research paper on "The Devastation of the Métis"; her slow process of reconnecting with her birth family parallels her grandfather's reticence to lead as an elder, and in overlapping time periods, her grandparents' childhood at residential schools, her grandfather's post-war PTSD, her grandmother's addiction after losing her children, her uncle's sexual abuse and depression. Josie's character embodies generational isolation, but as Yvette Nolan notes, the play "makes... a community... that has been shattered and dispersed by residential schools, the 1960s scoops, and internalized racism born of shame and dislocation." The time travel, or time-mashup, works with Josie to "make the connections to become whole again," until in "the final scene of the play, the playwright makes a community of a group that has until now not known its connection... three generations are connected, listening to one of the oldest stories" (Nolan Medicine Shows 83-4, 87). With the help of a Rougarou, "a shape-shifting supernatural creature that keeps nudging the reluctant student to look at the things she has been avoiding or denying all of her life," Josie unites pieces of self, pieces of community, and pieces of stories, "making connections about her own history and the history of the country in which she lives" (Nolan Medicine Shows 86, 84). Josie's and other characters' repeated insistence that they "don't know" and aren't up to the task dramatizes the need for everyone to begin somewhere in grappling with the past and its legacy.
Therefore, Murray's contribution to Indian Act bridges to other crises to which North American settler governments are slowly waking up, such as the decades-long crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People, a movement that has done much awareness-building through art and online with the hashtags #MMIW, #MMIWG, and #MMIWG2S. Tara Beagan, who attends to child characters in her boarding school play, gives all of her wrenching drama In Spirit to direct address by a "fictionalized" murdered girl "inspired by all too many true stories" (Beagan iii). In Spirit's epigraph connects #MMIWG2S to history of cultural genocide, declaring, "A missing child is an unquantifiable symptom of the greed and corruption of society... This play is for those children who bear the weight of the ways in which this world has failed them" (Beagan i). In Spirit provides an exquisite example of finding broad applicability through the specific. Beagan uses Ntlaka'pamux words, and notes that the play is meant to honor a specific loss, with the permission of the lost girl's mother, but she changes names and identifying details. Here again, video and sound augment the raw simplicity of solo performance - sometimes providing flashbacks of happier memories, sometimes demonstrating the distortion that young Molly experiences as she tries, post-mortem, to remember what happened to her. Molly speaks directly to her audience, but doesn't know why they are there any more than she knows where she is. Her "Do you see me? Feels like you're looking about me. But not really at me" speaks to the potential voyeurism of the audience relationship as well as the way that individual lives dissolve into the statistics (Beagan 6). Molly literally pieces together her smashed bike while telling stories about her family and her dog and her friends and her birthday - the kind of stories a not-quite-thirteen-year old girl tells, about her plans for holidays and how she and her best friend will live in a house together when they grow up. Molly doesn't realize that the bike she's reassembling is her own, but bits of the story of the man in the truck who asked her questions keep surfacing to puncture her young happiness. She tries to hide from sounds of her attack but keeps finding the bravery to pick up the bike pieces and tell her strange quiet adult audience about how her friend with brothers taught her to "become dead weight" to stop somebody from fighting them. Molly, however, knows more than one wants a not-quite-thirteen-year-old to know. She knows that "That's only if someone's worried about getting in trouble... . Some people don't care about trouble. That's when you have to be really, really, smart and brave" (Beagan 15). Consequently, the horrific reality of GIRL's death - inevitable as any plot - softens enough to withstand its telling, but also lands all the more painfully because we see it land on her, a girl we now know. As Molly spins her tales of family and friends, she illustrates Nolan's point about community. The loss of Molly will resonate through a long network. Molly's spirit, though, draws upon that network in death just as she did in life: just as she dealt with racist teachers by laughing about how adults can be dumb, just as she notes that dogs and people only grow up to be mean if someone was mean to them, just as she cried hardest when she realized that each of her run-over dogs were run over by people who chose to leave them. Remembering how her Yuh'yuh (Grannie) told her that everything has spirit, and that a funeral would help her let go of her dog, even though she was sick of funerals, remembering how they told stories about the dog, and then the wind "went shwushhhhup the trees," that "Yuh'yuh said it's [his] spirit going. Freefree," and then she went about her daily routine missing him but that each day got easier (Beagan 36). That understanding, that reassurance that Molly's spirit gives back to her audience, that validation for the telling of stories of the lost, brings Molly to recognize her bike, and to tell what happened to her, even to see her body. On the video screen, Molly remains "lifeless on the ground... as live Molly walks away" (Beagan 39). Beagan's play manages a tone both tender and brutal, funny and childlike and devastating. It allows Molly, standing fictionally in for so many real lost children, to be a child, and to craft a full life in stories even in the shadow of her death. It provides a ceremony for letting go, but its last sounds, of the truck on gravel, refuse to suggest any false resolution for an ongoing epidemic.
Similarly, Cliff Cardinal's dually-published solo pieces, Huff & Stitch, allow their young characters their childhood, drawing strength from the space of the play to... well, play. By speaking directly to the audience, Molly and Huff's Wind and Stitch's Kylie conjure what is lost, what is constantly being lost, what could have been and could be salvaged, protected. Yet where Beagan maintains a mostly gentle touch, Cardinal thrusts his audiences into a brittle, devouring world. Stitch begins at Kylie's job acting in porn videos; more specifically, it begins with Kylie proclaiming, "You're sick. ... But the ugly truth is that I need you. ... I won't be asking much of you. Just do what you always do. Watch" (Cardinal 59). Although she addresses an internet audience, she literally addresses the theatre audience, who see behind the scenes of her life, but also must watch all of her pain, her addiction, her struggle for custody of her daughter, her dangerous and humiliating jobs, and her personified persistent yeast infection. Huff also "implicates" the audience in its first moments, as the lights come up on a young man with his hands tied behind his back and a plastic bag over his head; he asks audience members to help him remove the bag, ensuring that from the beginning, the audience must face the consequences of their own lack of action.
Like Beagan, Cardinal worked as an actor before writing, and his early experiences included working with Nolan and with Native Earth Performing Arts. He had performed in the successful one-man piece Tales of an Urban Indian, and Nolan notes that his Huff, written ten years later, echoes that earlier "story of survival" but with "even more harrowing" stakes (Nolan Medicine Shows 28). Once again, the young protagonist Wind, who stops his own suicide attempt in the first scene, has his own very specific memories to share, but once again his life is entangled in historical and social forces. Even the kids on the bus know that "the statistical rate of suicide for First Nations living on the reserve is the highest in the world," so Wind knows that his mother's and brother's suicides connect to the problems of their school system, his other brother's Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and sexual abuse, his father's violence, and all three brothers' huffing of gas (Cardinal 26). Wind assigns the audience the role of "imaginary friends who exist as a result of self-asphyxiation, gas huffing, Lysol, or a combination of all three" (Nolan Medicine Shows 29). Nolan admits that Stitch must be driven by a magnetic performer in order for its power to cohere. The same can be said of Huff, but its rhythms and shifts between roles, its understanding of spare production flexibility and audience interaction speaks to Cardinal's deep knowledge of shared emotion and energy. Perhaps it's Cardinal's time inhabiting Huff as performer that yields such a muscular, lean, charming yet brutal portrait of the play's resilient boys. Cardinal has said that he wants Huff "to inspire hope, not hopelessness" (Nolan Medicine Shows 30). While the play's dark content makes hope feel unlikely, the energy and love of a great solo performer can bring it back, as can the brothers' relationship as described by Wind. Huff's scared gift was that he could "make people feel love just by blowing. Like this: Whooosh," and at the end of the play, when Wind seems once more lost beyond all hope, the whooosh returns to him, and he removes his handcuffs and the plastic bag, choosing hope, inspired by brother's memory preserved in story (Cardinal 7). Even with only one body onstage, Indigenous storytellers have long known how to embody community.
Nolan's own play, The Unplugging, and Keith Barker's This is How We Got Here present survivor stories as well, but in some senses more whimsically. In dialogue that hews between realism and fable, these two plays dramatize community more than identifiable issues or identities. The Unplugging presents a post-apocalyptic, post-electric landscape; its co-protagonists, two women in their fifties who've been exiled from their community because of their age, learn to live on their own through memories of grandmother's teachings, and then must decide whether to share their knowledge with their banishers. The characters' Indigeneity emerges in small pieces, like remembering how to set a trap, then remembering the word for rabbit. Yet its humor, its validation of elders and long memory, and its concern with relationships emphasize Nolan's points about making community. As Rachel Ditor's introduction points out, the play addresses both "small, domestic negotiations between people and the vast landscapes of our negotiations with nature... prompt[ing] us to think about our relationship to the land, our relationship to knowledge and how we acquire it and to the construction and nurturing of community" (Nolan Unplugging iii). In Medicine Shows, Nolan quips that she wrote The Unplugging "to see if [she] was still a playwright" as she left her administrative home. She identifies its "starting point [as] an Athabaskan story, which was told by Velma Wallis and published in 1993 as Two Old Women, about two women who are exiled from their community and must remember their traditional knowledge in order to survive" (Nolan Medicine Shows 88). While the original was set in precontact times, Nolan's resetting continues to think into the time of the eighth fire.
Barker's This is How We Got Here contains even fewer overt markers of Indigeneity, yet it too stages remaking of community as survivance. In fact its title could easily match the last chapter of Nolan's essays, This Is How We Go Forward. Barker (Algonquin Métis) follows up his first play, The Hours That Remain, which dramatized #MMIWG stories, with another dexterously woven exploration of trauma's repercussions on a family in This is How We Got Here. As the anniversary of their son Craig's suicide approaches, a family fights the disintegration of their relationships with each other in scenes that alternate with a tale of a storytelling fox who goes in search of his own forgotten story. The fox interludes both parallel and ground the swirl of human anger and loss, connecting to happy memories of Craig's childhood books and to a present-day fox who lingers in the backyard, who Craig's mom believes to be his spirit. The first scene opens with Craig's father and uncle looking for Craig's mom, who has gone missing. Only as the following scenes jump back and forth does the exposition unfold, how the mystery of Craig's suicide one year before sent fractures of blame and grief between his parents and their best friends. The final scene returns to the search but finds Craig's mom watching the body of the fox in the road. As the parents plan to bury the fox, they "lean into each other" again, and as the lights fade, the audience hears Craig's voice for the last and only time, his last voicemail message, a "slice of life, casual, everyday message" that his mom has been grasping as tightly as she grasps a mysterious egg brought to her by the fox (Barker 86). While the play resonates with the pain of broken connections and bad medicine, it also takes time for spirit, and for humor, notably when Craig's aunt tries to shoo away the fox, yelling
AND JUST BECAUSE I'M YELLING AT YOU DOESN'T MEAN I THINK YOU ARE WHO SHE SAYS YOU ARE, 'CAUSE YOU'RE NOT! Yeah yeah yeah, tilt your head, you smug little... What do you want from me? ... there's nothing left. You've taken it all away, and now it feels like... like I loved you too much... I am so mad at you and I have never been mad at you in my whole life ever. ... WELL DON'T JUST STAND THERE, SAY SOMETHING, WOULD YOU? ... Yeah, you're nothing but a fox (Barker 70).
While Barker doesn't identify his characters as Indigenous, he writes from intimate knowledge of the youth suicide epidemic in Indigenous communities, and like Beagan and the playwrights in Indian Act, Barker creates ceremony of collective grief in the name of collective healing. The play's ceremony reminds us that we all carry stories of each other, as Barker's fox story elaborates:
And when the sun returned the next morning, life continued as it always had, and
stories continued as they always do. For you see, the fox did not understand that our
stories are not just ours to tell. Other people tell them too, for our stories live in the
people around us. And when we lose our way, when we feel like we can't remember our
own story anymore, and that it might be coming to an end - that everything is going to
be okay: because when we can't tell our own story, the people in our lives tell our story for us. (Barker 80)
In past decades, Nolan found that whitestream audiences complained about feeling sad and guilty during Indigenous plays, and the few successful plays seemed "to be reinforcing the same theme: First Nations are damaged, and even within our own communities, we cannot heal." Yet these recent plays offer a way forward indeed: telling the stories together, around the eighth fire.
Although Indigenous stories and people are so much more than traumas, Nolan gives the TRC, along with Idle No More, some credit in starting the discussion about the relationship between Indigenous communities and settler and arrivant communities "to work together to achieve justice, to live together in a good way." She declares that "Indigenous performance offers one of the most generative means for Indigenous people and Canadians to explore their shared history and work towards some kind of conciliation" (Nolan Medicine Shows 117, 17). With Nolan's historical and conceptual guide, these recent plays offer all of North America a remarkable reading and viewing list.
Jennifer Shook, Oklahoma State University
NoiseCat, Julian Brave. "Tommy Orange and the New Native Renaissance," The Paris Review, June 29, 2018.
Sayet, Madeline. "Native Women Rising," American Theatre Magazine. April 2018.
Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. University of Cape Town. Press, 1998.