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  • On the path of an oil pipeline

    Monica Prendergast

    Bears at the Belfry is a great example of the resurgence of Indigenous theatre in Canada.


    THE BELFRY THEATRE opens its fourth show of the 2018-2019 season with a production from Edmonton, Bears by Matthew Mackenzie (Focus is the media sponsor). The play promises to be a blend of both Indigenous and environmental issues in its portrayal of an Indigenous man who works for an Alberta oil company. This man, Floyd, is on the run after being accused in a workplace accident. His journey takes him along the path of an oil pipeline, pursued by both Kinder Morgan and the RCMP. As Floyd tries to reach British Columbia, he is joined by a chorus of animals and, through their intervention and his own memories, he begins to feel his own transformation underway.

    The production, by Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts and Punctuate! Theatre, has had successful runs in Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver earlier this year. And playwright Mackenzie recently was awarded the Carol Bolt New Play Award by the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Critics and audiences have enjoyed the writing by Mackenzie that blends the mythic with the everyday, visual and musical elements provided by the chorus, the design of the show by Erin Gruber, and choreography by Monica Dottor.



    BEARS by Matthew MacKenzie featuring Sheldon Elter. Chorus l-r Lara Ebata, Gianna Vacirca, Skye Demas, Alida Kendell, Zoe Glassman, Kendra Shorter, Rebecca Sadowski. Photo by Alexis McKeown.


    But there were some questions raised, specifically by Vancouver theatre reviewer Colin Thomas, about the problem of preaching to the converted. He called the play “a decorative illustration of a preconceived position.” It is true that it’s very likely the well-educated Belfry audience will be sympathetic to the anti-pipeline/pro-environmental stance taken in the play. However, yet another critic in Toronto, Amanda Ghazale Aziz in Now Magazine, described the production as “a witty, riveting and evocative production that never loses its pace,” so it may be that audiences will be somewhat divided in their reception. This is a good thing, I believe, as political theatre should prompt meaningful community conversations.

    Belfry Theatre Artistic Director Michael Shamata has been very mindful in programming Indigenous plays throughout his decade at the helm. We have seen Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes, Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, and Salt Baby by Falen Johnson. There is no doubt that Victoria audiences have been enriched through these productions, and others, as Canada itself has wrestled with coming to better terms with First Nations.

    Earlier this year, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa appointed Kevin Loring to be the first ever Artistic Director of Indigenous Theatre. In his speech, made at the appointment ceremony in March of this year, Loring said, “In the 150 years of confederation, and the 525 years of colonization that Indigenous people have endured, our languages have been brought to the edge of extinction, our dances forbidden, and our ceremonies outlawed. Our traditional songs and stories that remain have survived by going underground.” His job as he sees it, is to follow the prophetic words of Louis Riel: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

    There has been a remarkable resurgence of Indigenous arts in Canada in the past couple of decades or so. These artists have found renewed support from a Canada Council for the Arts that has doubled its budget commitment under the Trudeau Liberals. Indigenous arts groups and individual artists have been the recipients of increased funding, along with a special project called {Re}conciliation that has brought Indigenous and settler artists together to co-create. It is inspiring to read through the various projects funded by this initiative. I am heartened by this work, as I am by a lengthy list of plays by Indigenous writers on the website of the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance. In addition to the playwrights mentioned above, we have many other Indigenous writers whose work has enhanced our cultural landscape: Marie Clements, Tara Beagan, Cliff Cardinal, Floyd Favel, Jani Lauzon and Drew Hayden Taylor among them.

    Yet there is a tension in all of this welcome Indigenous theatre, in that for the most part, these plays are being performed to white and middle class settler audiences. Loring addresses this in his talk at the NAC, saying, “Our traditions are rooted in oration, song, dance and the celebration of creation. Our stories are rooted in the land. Though we may have appropriated (and I do use that word intentionally) the methodologies of our settler contemporaries, at the core of our stories is the Indigenous perspective—the Indigenous experience which is inherently different than the settler world view of this land.”

    Loring acknowledges here that Indigenous artists are often working in forms and spaces established by the settlers on their lands. Perhaps there is a productive tension at play here, particularly (in my view) when audiences become “unsettled” by their encounter with Indigenous art.

    My own encounter with Cliff Cardinal’s one-man play Huff was certainly an example of this, in the play’s terrible yet blackly comedic whirlwind story of physical, sexual and drug and alcohol abuses suffered by northern First Nations children and young people. It feels much harder to get up and walk away from such an intimate encounter with the reality of too many lives in Canadian First Nations communities. I had to sit in the theatre for many minutes after the show was over to compose myself, and to try to come to terms in my mind with one of the richest nations on Earth allowing such poverty and deprivation to exist. The play made me angry, in a good way.

    That said, Indigenous theatre has begun to move beyond stories of colonial and postcolonial abuse and neglect, important as they are to tell and to witness. This spring, The Belfry brought in a lovely one-woman play called Café Daughter by Cree writer Kenneth T. Williams. Performed by Tiffany Ayalik, it tells the story of a girl who is half-Chinese-Canadian and half-Indigenous, growing up in small-town Saskatchewan in the 1950s and ’60s. The touching play is inspired by the life of Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, who became a member of the Senate.

    And earlier this year, I saw Drew Hayden Taylor’s play for young people, Spirit Horse, performed at Young People’s Theatre in Toronto to a full house of students from many cultural backgrounds. This play is an interesting example of cross-cultural blending, as it is based on an Irish play exploring the lives of Roma Gypsies, who are considered outsiders in that country. Taylor rewrote the play with an Indigenous single-parent family, keeping its core narrative of two children grieving their mother’s death and a magical horse that gives them hope and a reason to go on.

    There is much to celebrate in the resurgence of Indigenous arts in Canada. The work of reparation and reconciliation continues, and will likely take many generations to achieve. But in the visible resurgence of Indigenous art and artists on stages across this country, with plays like Bears, we can all play our part. In coming together as a community, to listen, to watch and to stand with First Nations in their struggles, we can work together for a better environment, for Indigenous self-governance, social health and wellness, and ultimately for a better country of which we can all be proud.

    Monica works at the University of Victoria in the Faculty of Education. Her newest publication, Web of Performance is available as a free ebook through the University of Victoria Library.

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