In the fall of 2021, William Shakespeare’s As You Like It opened at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto in what was billed as a “radical retelling” by playwright and actor Cliff Cardinal. But the Shakespeare was more than radical; it was a ruse.
Instead, Cardinal, an Indigenous provocateur with an impish performance style (and equally mischievous mustache), came out on stage to deliver a land acknowledgment – one that segued into an entertaining, emotional and sometimes scorching solo show about the state of reconciliation in Canada.
Another surprise: It was a word-of-mouth hit. (Refunds were on offer, but of 2,300 who attended, only nine asked for their money back.)
Having since pulled the same bait-and-switch in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa, Cardinal – who grew up idolizing the satirical stand-up of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and whose previous monologues include Huff and Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special – is bringing the show back to Toronto as The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It. The surprise now is who is presenting it: Commercial producer David Mirvish, as part of his Off-Mirvish season at the CAA Theatre from March 10 to April 2.
Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck sat down with Cardinal – originally from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the son of the legendary actor Tantoo Cardinal – in the Mirvish offices.
So, this is the first time your show is being presented as The Land Acknowledgement, right?
It’s the first time. Probably the only time.
Tell me a little bit about the origin of the show – and the decision to originally put it on as As You Like It.
Chris Abraham, artistic director of Crow’s, called me and asked me if I would be interested in responding creatively to the idea of a land acknowledgment. I said, “No, no, not really.” But it was the height of the pandemic and he said he’d pay me. So we started kicking into it. The rehearsal process was like in stand-up comedy – we would do it for an invited audience, whoever we could get in. It was pretty exciting. And then we realized that the people who would sign up to see The Land Acknowledgement would likely already be on my side.
What side is that?
I don’t know what side – but I think that there’s this warmth that people feel when they see a land acknowledgment. They feel a connection with the Indigenous community, even though they have none whatsoever. It makes them feel good – and that wasn’t anything that I wanted to do. So we set about making a show that was more about having a real connection based on honesty. Not with all Indigenous people, but … How about with me?
So if this show is about honesty, why did you …
Why did you lie?
You know, there’s lots of good reasons. I have been lied to so many times. I’ve been lied to about my history, about the culture, about my relationship with the country. To be an Indigenous person in Canada is to be lied to – and so we thought we should return the favour. And the other thing is that there’s an audience who goes to see Shakespeare who would never see me.
When I saw your show, you began by saying that you hate land acknowledgments – is that still in there?
I’ve sat through the Lord’s Prayer, I’ve sat through the Pledge of Allegiance, O Canada – you know, I can sit through a land acknowledgment. It’s not that big a deal. And, actually, I freaking love land acknowledgments now: Look where I am, at a Mirvish theatre. It’s really turned out to be a really good thing for me personally. I don’t know what it’s done for the Indigenous community, but it’s good for me.
You talk about this in your show but: Were they ever a good idea in general, or have they strayed from their original purpose, or –?
Yeah, the first time I heard one, I thought it was pretty cool. And then after 500 of them or five million of them, they start to feel routine or fake. They’re fake! It’s someone standing up and saying that they’re on the side of the Indigenous community – and I’ve never seen them at the Native Centre, I’ve never seen them at the powwow. I can’t abide by mindless virtue signalling – even though their hearts really are in the right place. The greatest – what do you call them? – “allies” of the Indigenous people that I have met, they don’t go raising their hands about it.
One of the things you talked about in the play then was the – “discovery” seems the wrong word, but the rediscovery, the acknowledgment of -
What has been construed as evidence of the bodies of -
Yes, unmarked graves at residential schools. When I first saw the show that was really, really fresh.
That was part of what was happening during that summer. We did a couple of little run throughs of the show – and then a week later it was a lot different. It grounded the reason for why it was necessary to lie. But: I don’t know anything. I am a highly uneducated person. I’m just, you know, an out-there guy who spends a lot of time writing and doing solo theatre. I’m trying to make it funny, I’m trying to make it delightful and I’m trying to tell the truth as I see it – which of course is very short sighted. I’m a fool.
In the sort of Shakespearean sense of the fool – who is really quite wise?
Sure. But I’m also a little daft.