The Great Gift of Tears|
by Edited by Heather Hodgson
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by Keith Garebian
As Heather Hodgson indicates in her Introduction, this First Nations anthology of four plays is obviously a teaching tool primarily for students of First Nations or Metis ancestry. The plays "have been read and discussed in manuscript form by students of English at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College." Because only two of the four plays (both by Floyd Favel) have received professional production and because they are all laced with vocabulary and phrases that remain incomprehensible to non-Natives without benefit of the glossaries in the anthology, they have not had an opportunity to resonate with a broad public. Their audience to date has been people with "a shared cultural task" (in Hodgson's words) "to recover and reforge aboriginal traditional spiritual resources for a space that is relatively new to Native people¨the theatre." I presume the editor means professional Western theatre, for our First Nations always had theatre of their own in the form of ritual, dance, and the re-enactment of episodes surrounding the hunt, inter-tribal battles, or episodes of cultural and mythological significance.
There is no denying the anthology's value as a socio-cultural document. Floyd Favel's Governor of The Dew (subtitled "a memorial to nostalgia and love"), for instance, is both a love story and an allegorical representation of the first encounter between Indian and European peoples. Told in flashback, the brief story (a two-acter only 15 pages long) rehearses the First People's penchant for orality. It makes an appropriate partner for Favel's first full-length play, All My Relatives, which, as the editor notes, "is also informed by the old stories and myths" woven together against "the backdrop of the long and uneasy shift First Nation peoples were forced to make from the bush to the reserve and from the reserve to the city." The characters realize the importance of remembering tradition and history, for the price of forgetfulness is melancholy desolation. In what sometimes appears to be an imitation of Tomson Highway's tragicomic mode, this play has serious undercurrents but a light surface that often glints with ironic or wry humour, courtesy of characters such as George (who attempts to commemorate tradition by growing braids and creating All My Relatives Agency to offer guided bus tours of native reserves) and his great-uncle Boniface (a jokester with a fondness for bingo). Unsurprisingly it is the women (Anna, her mother Ernestine, Granny, and the Metis Genevieve) who offer the strongest and deepest perspectives of what solution may be available to the heart-wrenching dilemmas that face First Nations families.
As can be expected of relatively new playwrights who are chiefly addressing a special group, the level of writing in this collection is simplistic. Characters are usually stock types, dialogue is plainly declarative, and the sense of closure forced. Nevertheless, there is a refreshing sense of humour and an enviable mixture of the material and spiritual in all the plays, though Bruce Sinclair's Mary of Patuanak (set in Saskatoon) is too obviously a thinly veiled adaptation of the Virgin Birth, with a Dene protagonist named Mary, a Metis carpenter named Joe, and three academics who conduct their own journey of the Magi.
The best play is easily Deanne Kasokeo's Antigone, an adaptation of Sophocles, although it reads more in the manner of Anouilh's version in terms of its modern tone, prosaic language, and a satiric subsidiary character (Panoon) who bears a correspondence to Anouilh's First Guard. I cannot understand why Kasokeo does not change the names of all Sophoclean characters to First Nations ones, but this is a small point. Set on a Native reserve, her play turns Creon into a Chief, uses female shamans, and ancestral spirits as a Chorus. Just as Anouilh married the modern to the classical by setting his version in Nazi-occupied France of the 1940s, Kasokeo focuses on politics by way of some of the vicious inheritances of colonialism. This Antigone derives much of its intensity from the fact that Chief Creon is a rigid, iron-willed, venal politician with a damaging secret, i.e. his misuse of band funds for his own selfish ends. Though the sociology is often too mundane for the fabric of high tragedy (there is much discussion of sewage, budget cuts, and welfare), Kasokeo manages to generate genuine power from the conflicts between Creon and the heroine, revealing the causes of the Chief's animus against her father and brother Polynices. Kasokeo's play, like the others in this book, reminds us of what Daniel David Moses once said: the First Nations are in history and their writings are very involved in that history rather than in the manufacture of canons to please non-Natives. ˛