Shy and unassuming, the award-winning playwright and poet Daniel David Moses would pause at the edge of literary events and opening night parties, checking out the territory before moving in – or, more likely, being dragged in.
But the plays Mr. Moses wrote were boldly poetic, audaciously told in genres from science fiction to ghost stories, as well as farce and tragedy. They blasted Indigenous stereotypes off Canadian stages while exploring subjects from colonialism to residential schools.
Almighty Voice and his Wife, Mr. Moses’ 1991 revisionist history play that reclaimed from the realm of Pierre Berton Canadiana the story of a 19th-century Cree man hunted to his death by the RCMP, was initially greeted with confusion by some audiences to the way it switched from lyrical romance in the first act to a satirical vaudeville/minstrel show run by an Interlocuter character in whiteface in the second.
But the two-hander, described as a “fully theatrical exorcism of the hurts of history,” has gone on to be Mr. Moses’s most frequently revived play: part of university curricula, toured to England and across the country. In the year leading up to Mr. Moses’ death – on July 13 at age 68 – the play was staged triumphantly at Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre company, in a production nominated for five Dora Mavor Moore Awards.
“Daniel was our most literary playwright,” said the Indigenous artist-scholar Monique Mojica, who included Almighty Voice in 2003′s Staging Coyote’s Dream, the first anthology of First Nations plays to be published in Canada. “He was the most poetic of our playwrights – and probably, also, the most overlooked because he didn’t do the wild self-promotion that everyone expects in this business.”
Daniel David Moses was born on Feb. 18, 1952, on a working farm on the Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario, not far from the historic home of E. Pauline Johnson, the Mohawk performance poet well-known in the late 19th and early 20th century.
His parents were David Nelson Moses, a Second World War veteran who served in the air force, and Blanche Ruth Moses (née Jamieson), who would later work as a registered nursing assistant – and he had a younger sister, Debora. The family attended St. Peter’s Anglican Church in the village of Ohsweken.
Mr. Moses’s father was of the Delaware Nation, while his mother was of the Tuscarora Nation, Bear Clan – a lineage she rediscovered when he was a boy. “Somewhere in the past, the change over to Christianity, my family mostly lost track of or chose not to preserve traditional knowledge,” Mr. Moses would later write in his 2005 essay collection, Pursued by a Bear.
Despite a grandmother’s warning that “all that Indian stuff … will only get you in trouble,” Mr. Moses would be part of a groundbreaking group of Indigenous artists who came of age after First Nations people gained the right to vote in federal elections without losing Indian status in 1960. “Whatever sense of our identities as First Nations people we’ve dared develop, we’ve done so on purpose, part of a first generation ... who’ve had the option of thinking of themselves as something like citizens,” he wrote in a 2000 essay.
Growing up on a working farm, Mr. Moses learned his lifelong habit of rising early to milk the cows. He first studied at a one-room schoolhouse and later went to middle school in Ohsweken, followed by high school in nearby Caledonia.
Barbara Curley, Mr. Moses’s first cousin, described him as “very intellectual from the get-go.” She recalls seeing him curl up with comic books, pocket books – he loved Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and A.A. Milne – or Mad magazine.
Mr. Moses developed a love for the city of Toronto staying with Ms. Curley’s parents in Scarborough while working as a page in the Ontario Legislature during middle school. He spent many off-hours in the Royal Ontario Museum – and once was even briefly locked in after it closed. He also noticed the city’s darker side – and, in an essay he wrote in 1997, he alluded to violence faced by men like him, who were Indigenous and gay, “on the street by the guys who didn’t like the way one looked or walked or talked, who threatened, at least, one’s self confidence, at most one’s life.”
At York University, Mr. Moses studied every kind of writing he could as he earned his honours BA. He then got an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia before returning to Toronto in 1979 to establish himself as an artist.
Mr. Moses published his first poetry collection, Delicate Bodies, in 1980 with blewointment press, a book publishing company, but was not entirely satisfied with its “singular lyrical voice.” “So I found myself moving more and more often in the poems into an ironic stance that implied other voices and dialogues. And, of course, I’d found myself finally writing plays.”
Structures were emerging to support Indigenous theatre artists in Toronto at the time. The Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts established the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in 1974 – but the scene took a major leap forward in 1982 when Native Earth Performing Arts was founded.
In 1986, Mr. Moses founded a short-lived yet influential group dedicated to reclaiming Indigenous voice in literature: the Committee to Re-Establish The Trickster, with playwright Tomson Highway (then-artistic director of Native Earth) and the writer and storyteller Lenore Keeshig-Tobias.
Coyote City, Mr. Moses’s 1988 debut as a playwright at Native Earth, was inspired by a Trickster story from the Nez Perce people, in which Coyote is allowed to visit his wife in the afterlife – but it was set in Toronto. A Globe and Mail critic wrote Mr. Moses had “a poetic suggestiveness that recalls Tennessee Williams” – and the play was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Drama.
Coyote City was followed by three other connected “city” plays that bridged the supernatural spiritual world and contemporary urban Indigenous experience: Big Buck City (1991), Kyotopolis (1993) and City of Shadows (1995).
Almighty Voice and His Wife premiered in 1991 at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa under the direction of Lib Spry and starring Billy Merasty and Jani Lauzon to a mixed response. “I remember very clearly, I’d know if there were a larger number of Indigenous people in the audience or not, because, if there were, there was lots of laughter,” Ms. Spry says.
Ms. Lauzon, who nearly three decades later would direct the play for Soulpepper, says Mr. Moses’s work could be “less accessible to white audiences” than his better-known contemporaries Mr. Highway and Drew Hayden Taylor. His poetic writing can be a challenge for actors, too, ”just like Shakespeare,” she says.
In 2003, Mr. Moses – whose other works include history plays The Indian Medicine Shows and Brebeuf’s Ghost, and tomes of poetry published about once a decade – was appointed as a National Scholar in the Department of Drama at Queen’s University in Kingston. He became a full professor thereafter and primarily taught play-writing while continuing to mentor artists outside the university.
Falen Johnson, a younger playwright from Six Nations whom Mr. Moses selected as the emerging artist to share in his Ontario Arts Council Aboriginal Arts Award in 2015, says he would always attend her plays, even when they were in smaller festivals, even when it meant travelling into Toronto by train from Kingston. (Mr. Moses never got his licence; the only vehicles he drove were tractors.)
“When you meet him, he’s so quiet, such a gentle person,” says Ms. Johnson, who, along with current Native Earth artistic director Keith Barker, suggested to then-Soulpepper artistic director Alan Dilworth that he program Almighty Voice and His Wife. “His work was so bombastic and huge and unapologetic.”
Having spent decades in artistic poverty, Mr. Moses lived simply even after earning a professor’s salary – keeping the small one-room apartment on the Danforth he lived in for more than 35 years.
In the winter of 2019, Mr. Moses returned there full-time after retiring early from Queen’s following a cancer diagnosis. The visual artist Eric Ladelpha, a close friend since their days at York University, said by the time Mr. Moses went to a clinic, his cancer was “everywhere.”
Mr. Ladelpha accompanied Mr. Moses to hospital visits as he managed the cancer first with a drug treatment, and then chemotherapy, until March when the pandemic hit.
On July 13, Mr. Moses, who valued his independence, collapsed on his way home from the grocery store; he died of heart failure. He leaves his sister Debora, his extended family, and close friends Mr. Ladelpha and Carol Rowntree.