- Title: I Call Myself Princess
- Written by: Jani Lauzon
- Genre: Play-Opera
- Director: Marjorie Chan
- Actors: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Howard Davis, Richard Greenblatt, Marion Newman, Aaron Wells
- Company: Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoot Theatre in association with Native Earth Performing Arts
- Venue: Aki Theatre in the Daniels Spectrum
- City: Toronto
- Year: Continues to Sept. 30, 2018
I Call Myself Princess, Jani Lauzon’s engaging new play with an opera inside of it, lets us listen closely to a fascinating case of cultural appropriation from a century ago.
In 1918, the Metropolitan Opera in New York premiered a new work called Shanewis, or The Robin Woman, about a young native-American opera singer who ends up part of an interracial love triangle.
Its credited creators were two white artists: composer Wakefield Cadman, an expert on “Indian music” (and closeted gay man), and lyricist Nelle Eberhart, who became the first female librettist to have work premiere at the Met.
In the published score, however, you’ll find this one sentence at the bottom of the plot synopsis, in parentheses: “The sketch of the story was given by Tsianina Redfeather of the Creek tribe.”
Shanewis was, in fact, loosely based on the native-American mezzo-soprano Redfeather’s own biography – and she collaborated closely with Cadman and Eberhart on its creation.
While she chose not to perform in it in New York (where it played two consecutive Met seasons), she did take on the lead role when it was performed at the Hollywood Bowl in 1926.
With I Call Myself Princess, Lauzon – a Métis multidisciplinary artist lately known from acting at the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival – aims to take Redfeather and other uncredited Indigenous collaborators of early 20th-century music out of those parentheses.
There’s a framing device that allows for our modern concept of cultural appropriation to be broached directly, rather than implied.
In the present day, William Morin (Aaron Wells), a Métis tenor from Winnipeg, is studying in Toronto on an Indigenous scholarship when he is asked to perform in Shanewis.
Far away from his emotional anchor, his boyfriend Alex (Howard Davis), Morin becomes obsessed and troubled by the opera and Redfeather’s long artistic relationship with Cadman, who considered himself an “idealizer” who transformed the songs of various Indigenous people collected by ethnologists into “American Indian art songs.”
As Morin goes down a research rabbit-hole, scenes from the Creek singer (Marion Newman) collaborating with Cadman (Two Pianos, Four Hands’s Richard Greenblatt, who plays piano for much of the play) and Eberhart (a sly Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) appear on stage.
In director Marjorie Chan’s production, however, it’s unclear whether these are seen through a portal to the past, are dramatizations of the documentary sources Morin is reading, or are taking place in his imagination.
This points to I Call Myself Princess’s major structural problem: Morin, our main character, is a province away from his black, working-class boyfriend – and 100 years away from the rest of the characters. Conflict and dramatic tension dissipate with all this disconnection and distance.
But this is forgivable because Lauzon’s play, unlike many more well-made plays, is never uninteresting – and it eventually finds the right angle on the material in the second act, when the pretenses of naturalism are abandoned and Morin begins to interact with the past.
We get to hear and watch extracts of this weird but occasionally wonderful 100-year-old “Indianist” opera in the context of its creation – with modern-day musicologist Morin commenting and making clear what has been taken from which Indigenous peoples.
Playing Redfeather and Morin, Newman and Wells are both fine singers and put ironic emphasis on lyrics when warranted (as in an inadvertently hilarious powwow scene with balloons and ice cream from Shanewis), while also allowing the beauty of the music to come out and resonate when it is, indeed, beautiful.
Both Greenblatt and Lancaster play Cadman and Eberhart as complicated artistic allies. How could these two both be sympathetic to the history of native-American dispossession and displacement – while at the same time be blind to the fact they were continuing it by using their songs and stories to build personal artistic careers and enrich only themselves? (Similar questions are being asked of Quebec director Robert Lepage in his creation of Kanata today.)
Of course, not everyone believes that what we call cultural appropriation is necessarily a bad thing – and in I Call Myself Princess that argument occurs between the two Indigenous characters.
In 1918, Redfeather sees herself as helping preserve Indigenous culture – and pursuing a musical career that is available to her. In 2018, meanwhile, Morin believes Redfeather bought into a colonialist idea that her culture was disappearing and aided and abetted in the theft of it. While Lauzon allows Morin to mostly win the debate in I Call Myself Princess, Redfeather’s resurrection in a 21st-century play suggests they both might have a point.