In 2017, a Hollywood film was being shot in Alberta featuring Indigenous actors Tom Jackson, Glen Gould and Raoul Trujillo called Cold Pursuit. Oh yeah, it also starred two settlers named Liam Neeson and Laura Dern. At one point, the producers had attempted to shoot their thriller in some of the parks for which the province is so renowned, but their request was turned down. It seemed Parks Canada, among its list of reasons, felt the portrayal of Indigenous people as drug gangsters was less than progressive, stating their “commitment to reconciliation and respect for Indigenous peoples was an important factor in the agency’s final decision in this matter.”
Jackson sent a letter of support for the production to Parks Canada giving the film and the portrayal of native characters in the movie his Cree thumbs up, but to no avail. The final result, no parks were harmed in the filming of that movie. Evidently this branch of the Canadian government is unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of Indigenous Criminal Masterminds. I mildly resent that assumption.
This is the latest example from an onslaught of political correctness as it makes its way into the Indigenous artistic community in the most unusual ways. This stand by Parks Canada seems to state aboriginal people in this country, in film and television portrayals, have to have a specific type of role or character to be accepted. A positive, or possibly a tragic one. You cannot help wondering what other kinds of Indigenous roles they would not allow to be depicted on their soil.
Changing times require changing rules. And sometimes, toes get stepped on and the understanding of the aboriginal experience in the midst of all this gets kind of confusing. Cold Pursuit being just one example. My play, Cottagers and Indians, being another.
For the past two years, a production of the play has been featured at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto and a few other venues across Canada, with a possible three Southern Ontario theatres remounting it this coming summer. During a small tour last year, posters were printed and distributed, advertising the show in various stores and businesses. At least that was the plan.
Word came back that several business establishments were reluctant to display the poster, simply because it had Indian in the title. In Canada, Indian has now unofficially become the “I” word. Unless of course you are South Asian.
Last fall, the play ran for three weeks at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa and was well-attended, but received numerous complaints at the box office about – again – the title. These were protests from what we in the Indigenous industry call “social justice warriors” willing to go to battle on behalf of the Indigenous people of Canada.
It should be noted that to the best of our knowledge, no native person had complained about the title. They got the joke. Cottagers and Indians was a play on the childhood game, cowboys and Indians, merely transported into a contemporary context. Many found the title clever and funny.
That was the point of the title. So there!
Another more interesting aspect of the growing sense of social and political awareness involves another play of mine, The Berlin Blues. And upon reflection, it seems it was only inevitable the casting world of Indigenous theatre would be forced to deal with this.
In the past few decades, it has become normal practice for all theatre companies to hire Indigenous actors to play Indigenous roles. There is still some grumbling in certain quarters about this practice, citing the concept of non-traditional or colour-blind casting. But the practice remains true.
Now, that step is being taken a little bit further. Odyssey Theatre in Ottawa is hoping to do a production of my show this summer and is in the process of casting it. One promising actor, whom I’ve worked with before, at first expressed an interest in one of the roles, then after some thought, he declined to pursue. His reasoning – the character in the play is Anishnawbe, and he is Cree. He felt it would be irresponsible for him to take on such a role. It should be played by an Anishnawbe.
In the past 15 years, The Berlin Blues has been produced half a dozen times in Canada and the United States with Anishnawbe, Haudenosaunee, Cree, Comanche, Cherokee etc. actors. Truthfully I think each and every actor did a fabulous performance and, as the writer, I know the work can survive regardless of the Indigenous ethnicity of the actor.
Looking on the darker (no pun intended) aspect of this, I know of many Haudenosaunee, Sto:lo, Salish, Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous actors that, if they were restricted to being in plays (or films) featuring just their specific First Nation, the term “starving actor” would take on tragic significance. I really do believe this is a non-issue. At least for me.
Coincidentally, this specific production illustrates a more positive development in the continuing development of Indigenous theatre. Odyssey in Ottawa is a theatre that excels in masked performance and commedia dell’arte. They are adapting my play – or as I prefer to believe, my play is culturally appropriating commedia dell’arte. Therefore, I do not believe my characters should be played by 18th-century Italians, Spanish or basically anybody who can hold a tan.
A few nights ago, I attended the opening of Keith Barker’s excellent This Is How We Got Here, produced at Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s premier Indigenous theatre company. The entire cast, as well as several of the production crew, were of Indigenous heritage. Yet, except for the play opening with a tobacco ceremony, there was no indication or mention that this was a play about native people. Just people. This may be a new trend.
Last year in Toronto, VideoCabaret produced a play written and directed by Cliff Cardinal called Too Good To Be True, done in the distinctive clownesque style the company is known for. It was funny, revealing and well-executed. Cardinal, as well as the costume designer and the entire cast, are Indigenous. But there is nothing particularly Indigenous about the play. They are just characters in a location and situation. I found it refreshing, as not everything in our lives is a direct comment or the byproduct of our aboriginal heritage – sometimes eating a pizza is just eating a pizza (on Italian bannock). When I watch a hockey game, it’s not a reflection of a treaty signed 200 years ago.
But it was interesting how unusual that non-Indigenous Indigenous play was for a worldly Toronto theatre literati. One review commented, “There are no direct references to the characters being Indigenous in this play, but it’s possible they are; understanding them as such would add another layer of significance to themes of land ownership and an adversarial relationship with a state body such as the police.”
Much like what Parks Canada believes, it seems you cannot expand the bounds of what the dominant culture perceives Indigenous people and theatre to be – or do.
Regardless, there goes that promising career in crime I was anticipating.
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