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Drew Hayden Taylor.Sara Cornthwaite/Supplied

Drew Hayden Taylor is a playwright, originally from the Curve Lake First Nation in Ontario. His play Open House runs April 18-28 at Factory Studios in Montreal.

In today’s educational system, Indigenous theatre and literature are frequently part of the curriculum. The stories of the Indigenous people of Canada are being studied by students from the dominant culture, and by students from other cultures from around the world. This is a good thing. Our trials, tribulations, joys and victories are something all people can understand. As Indigenous playwrights, we’re not reinventing the wheel – or canoe – here.

But then there are the politics of the Indigenous theatre world, which actually have nothing to do with the content of plays. In this politically correct world, complications arise that make the study of our work a little more difficult. And it’s a little annoying. I will give you an example.

I recently received an e-mail from a teacher who is part of a school board committee set up to deal with the study of First Nations literature. Evidently, there was a problem. The teacher said he had been asked by a colleague if it would be appropriate for a drama class to perform a play I wrote, whose title he referred to as “Only Drunks and Indians Tell The Truth.”

The actual title of the play is Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth. I find the teacher’s mistake mildly disturbing, and perhaps a bit revealing. But that’s a different battle for a different day.

Apparently, some at the school had suggested the play wasn’t appropriate, in part because the school has only two Indigenous children, making it impossible to have a fully Indigenous cast. The teacher was wondering whether it would be appropriate for non-Indigenous students to play Indigenous parts.

This is not the first time a question like this has landed in my inbox. A decade or two ago, I was asked for advice regarding a theatre class at the University of British Columbia’s MBA program. Some students had gotten into a disagreement with one of their profs.

As a class exercise, the professor wanted to do a production of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters. The class consisted mostly of women. The students opted not to participate, concerned about taking on the mantle of Indigenous women. Instead, they wanted to do a production of Les Belles Soeurs.

The professor asked them why they were apparently more comfortable with pretending to be working-class French Canadian women than they were with playing Indigenous women.

I’m told their response was that there were no working-class French Canadian women in Vancouver to see them perform. I guess that made it okay.

I personally have no problem with classes studying my work, regardless of the students’ heritage. I have it on good authority that schools were designed to be places of education, of learning. And what better way to learn about a people, or a culture, than to put on a pair of moccasins or spend time in a First Nations community, even a fictional one, for a few hours? Wherever a play may take you – whether it’s a 16th-century Elizabethan court, or some small American town – embrace it and learn from it.

So, to return to the high school teacher, my words to him were: run with it. Let students understand the triumphs and tragedies of our communities – once he gets the title of my play right.

(Of course, that condition might backfire on me. Will this teacher believe I don’t think “Indians” can tell the truth, unlike drunks and children? See? It all gets so complicated.)

And as for those UBC students, they should have embraced the opportunity. It was probably their only chance to play Indigenous characters. Now, and probably for the rest of their careers, they will play nothing but settler characters. I would find that kind of limiting.

This all changes when it comes to professional productions.

On a professional stage, I think it adds to the production if the Indigenous characters are played by Indigenous people. Acting is all about authenticity.

On Citytv’s Hudson and Rex, there is a certain definable believability that Diesel Vom Burgimwald, a German shepherd, brings to the character of Rex, a police dog. I can’t see a cat bringing a better sense of authenticity to the role.

It should be pointed out that the tree of political correctness has many different branches. Just last week, my agent told me a British Columbia theatre company has postponed a production of my play Cottagers and Indians, because they were unable to locate an available Indigenous director.

I may have to stop writing plays with Native characters.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the play Open House runs until April 28.

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