Last month, while Canada was hotly debating the motives behind its theatrical Prime Minister’s youthful dabblings in blackface, over at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre they were starting rehearsals on a play in which Indigenous actors perform in whiteface.
The play is the 1990s classic Almighty Voice and His Wife by Daniel David Moses, a landmark of Canadian Indigenous theatre and now the first work by a First Nations playwright to be produced by Soulpepper, the city’s largest not-for-profit theatre company.
An unconventional retelling of the legend of Almighty Voice, the 19th-century Cree outlaw and folk hero, Moses’s script begins as a romantic lovers-on-the-run tale. But then, in the startling second act, it’s reframed as a crass, exploitative vaudeville show. The play’s two characters return, slathered in white makeup, to offer a crude colonial take on the tragedy we’ve just witnessed, complete with “cigar-store Indian” jokes and “bloodthirsty redskin” clichés.
Coming just as the young Justin Trudeau’s misadventures with greasepaint have conjured up the spectre of the old, racist minstrel shows, the play’s timing couldn’t be better.
“It’s uncanny,” agrees director Jani Lauzon, laughing as she pushes back her long mane of silver hair. As it happens, Moses’s play is mocking the sort of “redface” entertainments that denigrated North America’s Indigenous people in the same way the minstrel shows belittled African Americans.
Also flourishing at the dawn of the 20th century, these vaudeville shows perpetuated the noxious “Indian” stereotypes later adopted by Hollywood. Their most famous iteration was Buffalo Bill Cody’s touring Wild West show, in which the great Lakota chief Sitting Bull was a star attraction.
“That was a time when the world was really excited about dressing up as an Indian – or having us dress up as Indians and perform – but we weren’t allowed to actually be Indian,” says Lauzon, who is Métis. “It’s a time in our history when our image was being usurped and contorted and transformed.”
For Moses, reclaiming those vaudeville performances was a way to avoid turning Almighty Voice’s story into just a tragic tale. “I didn’t want to tell another story where the Indian gets defeated,” says the veteran playwright, who grew up on Ontario’s Six Nations reserve. He’s a gentle giant of a man with a crooked smile and a sweet demeanour that belies his wicked sense of humour.
Almighty Voice, or Kisse-Manitou-Wayou, was in fact the victim of a tragic misunderstanding. A Plains Cree living on Saskatchewan’s One Arrow reserve in the lean years following the failed Riel Rebellion, he was jailed in 1895 for butchering a government cow. Misled into thinking he would be hanged for his crime, he busted out and went on the lam. After shooting a North-West Mounted Police sergeant who attempted to arrest him, he became the subject of a lengthy, bloody manhunt that only ended when he and two companions were brought down by cannon fire.
His story had been dramatized before – even inspiring a 1974 film, Alien Thunder, starring Gordon Tootoosis and Donald Sutherland, but Moses first encountered it while doing research at Brantford, Ont.’s First Nations museum, the Woodland Cultural Centre. He says he discovered “seven or eight” different versions, based mainly on written reports by the North-West Mounted Police and the government. Not satisfied with their “renegade Indian” accounts, he began looking for, in his words, “something that would allow me to see the human beings in the story.”
He found it in a passing mention of an unnamed woman who was with Almighty Voice when he shot the Mountie. “In the reports, they don’t pay attention to her. But I come from Six Nations, and we don’t not pay attention to the women!” he says with a laugh. “I thought, ‘What’s she doing there? Who is she?’”
Out of that speculation evolved the tender love story of the fugitive hero and his fierce but faithful young wife, a residential-school survivor nicknamed “White Girl.” Written with humour, poignancy and lyricism (Moses is also a poet), it became the tragedy he had tried to avoid.
But then that tragedy turns to travesty in the satirical second act.
“I wanted to flip the perspective from Almighty Voice to the people who were hunting him down,” Moses says. The idea of playing it in whiteface came from his involvement with Toronto’s seminal Native Earth theatre company: “A lot of our actors had clown training, so I thought it worked perfectly.”
After a decade’s research, the play came pouring out of him in a three-week writing bout at the Banff Playwrights Colony. It premiered in 1991 at Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company before going on to be staged at Native Earth the following year. The original GCTC production starred Billy Merasty as Almighty Voice and Lauzon as White Girl.
“That was when I fell in love with the play and with Daniel’s writing,” Lauzon says. “For me, it was an actor’s dream – and a huge challenge as well.” This is a play that requires its two actors to portray a moving love story, a Cree Romeo and Juliet, then do an about-face and execute a zany song-and-dance routine. “Billy and I were often exhausted,” Lauzon recalls with a smile. For the Soulpepper show, she’s cast a pair of dynamic young performers: James Dallas Smith, an actor-musician of Mohawk-Scottish descent, and Dora Award-winning Métis actress Michaela Washburn.
Although Soulpepper has revisited other Canadian classics in its 21-year history, this is its first dip into the First Nations canon and the first show with a predominantly Indigenous cast and creative team. And that’s just one of the milestones for Canada’s aboriginal theatre artists this season. September saw the inauguration of the new Indigenous Theatre division at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, while in Calgary, Making Treaty 7 has become the first Indigenous company to take up residence in one of the city’s major venues, the Grand Theatre.
Lauzon thinks it’s a sign of new times. “It used to be that the world wasn’t interested in our stories, so we just did what we did for ourselves,” she says. “What is cool is that now the world has taken an interest and we’re finally able to access the resources to create great theatre. It’s nice to have allies like Soulpepper and the recognition that our stories are important.”
Moses believes there’s “a great hunger” to hear those stories. A professor emeritus at Queen’s University, in the years before his recent retirement he taught a course on First Nations plays that he says was an eye-opener for his white students.
“They couldn’t believe these plays were based on actual history – they hadn’t been taught any of it,” he says. “And they were just hungry to know about the complexity of this country. They had thought our history was boring, and it’s not, it’s real dramatic.”
Almighty Voice and His Wife runs from Oct. 11 to Nov. 10 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. (soulpepper.ca)
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