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Theatre & Performance Cliff Cardinal’s special for SummerWorks Performance Festival goes to dark places

Cliff Cardinal

Henry Chan Jr./Handout

Although the new one-hander from the Cree performer-playwright Cliff Cardinal is called Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special, it neither airs nor streams on that broadcaster’s platforms. Instead, the song-and-storytelling show about growing up Canadian and Indigenous makes its premiere on stage, at Toronto’s annual SummerWorks Performance Festival. Cardinal, who earned a Dora Mavor Moore Award for his unflinching, darkly comic Huff, about youth suicide and solvent abuse, spoke to The Globe and Mail about his new show and his sneaky CBC aspirations.

You’re being cheeky with the title of your latest work, but be honest, isn’t it a little bit of an audition for CBC Radio?

It’s funny. I forgot to mention in the opening-night performance that I love CBC Radio. I grew up with it. It brings everybody who lives here on Turtle Island together. There’s no part of me that wants to make fun of that. There’s nothing cynical at work.

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Still, Stuart McLean’s The Vinyl Cafe has not been replaced. Your words and music could fill that void, couldn’t they?

You got me [laughs]. Yes, deep down I hope it gets picked up by CBC Radio. I figure the show will either get me a deal or a cease-and-desist letter. So far, nothing.

If it’s not for CBC, what is your intention with it?

I just want to entertain people. I want to go on the road and keep on entertaining people who saw Huff. I want to show people a different side of me. This is my attempt at lighter fare.

Lighter fare? There are stories about an apartment fire, a drunk-driving accident and a terrible hunting incident.

I grew up with a dark sensibility. I’ve always thought that we should look into the face of what is scary. And no matter how horrible the thing is, we should joke about it. We should laugh in its face.

Is there a through-line to the stories and songs?

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I’m not trying to say anything important, really. I’m trying to say nothing at all. I just want people, for an hour, to not think about the fact that we’re all going to die. We’re coming together to check out these dark places.

Dark places, like 2015’s Huff. It was adapted into a three-part audio drama earlier this year, right?

Huff is a bummer. It was something that haunted me for years. It had to come out. We’ve been touring it for several years. I hope that doing Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special will bring more energy and some freshness to Huff. Apparently there’s still places that want to have Huff, and as long as that job is out there to do, I’m happy to do it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special continues at SummerWorks in Toronto to Aug. 17 (summerworks.ca).

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