Firehall Arts Centre
ONLY DRUNKS AND CHILDREN TELL THE TRUTH
by Drew Hayden Taylor
Directed by Donna Spencer
Firehall Arts Centre
280 East Cordova
January 15 - 24, 1998
Humour and Insight Infuse This Powerful Native Story
by Roxanne Davies
A sad chapter in Canadian history provides the artistic fodder for award-winning Canadian playwright Drew Hayden Taylor in his play Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth. By now, the details of this travesty of justice and human decency are well-known.
In the last few weeks, the Canadian government has issued a formal apology to the aboriginal people of Canada for past wrongs. Whether it was a misguided sociological experiment or a malevolent and premeditated attempt to destroy Canada's original inhabitants is open for debate. At least two generations of natives were destroyed by the government's attempt to"assimilate" native children into mainstream culture by placing them with white families or in residential schools.
The effects on a people were devastating. Language and culture were lost. Children were ripped from the bosom of their families. The level of abuse was horrific.The fabric of native life has been slow to mend as lost children search for their roots and families welcome back their children.
I had been aware of this sorry history, but little did I think I would laugh so hard at a play that deals with such serious subject matter. But then again, Taylor, himself part Ojibway, uses humour as good medicine to heal the wounds and present this tale in palatable bites for native and non-native audiences alike.
Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth is a sequel to Someday, a play in which we first meet the main characters. Although the second play can stand alone without playgoers having seen the first one, a little bit of background is in order.
As an infant, Janice Wirth was taken from her mother, Anne and placed with a rich, white family. She grows up to be a successful entertainment lawyer living in Toronto. Her younger sister, Barb, had a difficult adolescence on the Otter Lake reserve, living in a rundown bungalow with Anne. In Someday, a 35-year old Janice meets her birth mother and the discovery proves too much for her to bear. On Christmas Eve, with the turkey in the oven, she drives off into the night and away from her heart-broken mother.
In the second play, six months have passed and Barb and two friends, Rodney and Tonto, go to Toronto to tell Janice that Anne has died and that she should come back to Otter Lake to say goodbye to her spirit.
The fun begins when they break into Janice's apartment. On the reserve, when you go visiting and no one's home, you wait inside, they tell a surprised Janice. Her "white" yuppie preoccupation with the right kind of coffee and healthy foods make for some humorous repartee with her houseguests. Dynasty meets the Dukes of Hazard, as one character quips.
The play turns certain stereotypes on their head to create some very memorable characters. While Barb (Columpa C. Bobb) and Janice (Cheri Maracle) carry the heavy message of the play and are the ones who get drunk in the second act in order to tell each other the truth, Rodney (Glen Gould) and Tonto (Lorne Cardinal) play two sober and strutting males providing the comic relief.
TV watchers will recognize Columpa C. Bobb, Grand daughter of the late Chief Dan George, from her role as Mary Cook on CBC's North of 60. Bobb is a terrific actor and her Barb can switch from humour to drama with ease. She deftly portrays the awkward tension between the sisters. Janice, who took their mother's spirit when she left, was the ideal. Barb was the reality. But Barb retained important parts of her heritage and instructs her sister in some Ojibway words with gentleness and patience.
Maracle as Janice plays the beautiful ice-queen lawyer with a seriousness that is so contrary to the other characters, I wanted her to lighten up a bit. Yet the depth of her intense feeling comes through in the last scene at her mother's gravesite. Her grief was so real, I was moved to tears. There is no trite resolution to her dilemma, simply honesty and hope.
Although Tonto plays a sexy buffoon, one realizes the depth of his feelings and intelligence. Cardinal relishes in his role and a chance to show off a great set of legs in boxers, slipping from madcap antics to serious philosophizing. White people spend too much time looking for their inner child, he tells Janice. They should be looking for their inner elder. When Janice asks "I thought all Indian men drink?" Tonto brings the yuppie lawyer up short with "I thought all women could cook!"
Rodney, a sensitive 90s kind of guy is always there to place his loving arm around Barb, his distraught girlfriend . Rodney, played by Glen Gould (no, not that Glen Gould) provides one of the funniest one-liners of the show. Looking through Janice's picture window, Rodney describes Toronto as "nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to put a land claim on it".
If I could offer one word of advice to these talented actors, I would tell them to slow down a little, their lines tended to sound garbled with the speed of their delivery.
In general, Donna Spencer directs her cast at a fine tuned pace that never lets up through the six scenes. Spencer, the founding artistic producer of the Firehall Arts Centre, has been an important presence in Vancouver's arts community. She will be taking this show on the road for the next four months. So, if you miss the Vancouver performance, you still have a chance to catch up with it in Kamloops or Uclulet, to name just two of the 17 communities it will visit.
And if you ever wanted to find out what really happened to Amelia Earhart (she's alive and well on the Otter Lake reserve) and if you really can go home again, go and see this entertaining yet powerful play.
Copyright 1998 Roxanne Davies