Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Douglas stages classic First Nations play – sans First Nations actors

By Tamara Letkeman, doug Editor

Looking for a little enlightenment in your entertainment? How about possible controversy? If this sounds intriguing, come see The Rez Sisters Nov. 9-17 at Douglas. 

Written by Cree playwright Tomson HighwayThe Rez Sisters about seven women, each wrestling with personal demons, on a native reserve in Ontario, who dream of attending (and winning) "The Biggest Bingo in the World." It is of one of the most famous and influential First Nations plays in Canada.

Douglas is putting on the play using a cast of almost exclusively non-aboriginal actors. This is where the "possible controversy" comes in.

First performed 1986, The Rez Sisters opened to critical acclaim and sold-out houses. But since then it has rarely been staged, notes Deborah Neville, director, because many theatres are afraid to take the risk of casting non-aboriginal actors in aboriginal roles.

"There was this slippery feeling that you needed to cast First Nations people in order to get the proper First Nations voice," Deborah says. So there was this dry period where this beautiful thing went on ice because nobody would touch it."

Two of the actors and the set and costume designer in the Douglas College production have some aboriginal lineage. The rest are non-aboriginal. To prepare for the production, Deborah and the cast have been doing historical research, meeting with aboriginal groups to become more familiar with First Nations cultures, learn some dance and take a crash course in Cree.

Deborah says she had no qualms using a colour-blind cast.

"I watched an interview with Tomson Highway where he was encouraging non-aboriginal theatre companies to ‘get on it, put the play up, do it.' For me, that was my way in. It was permission."

Deborah says theatre is, more importantly, about "digging around and finding out who people are, and why."

"That's the reason I go to the theatre - to get a deeper understanding of what it's like to be somebody else, someone whose life is perhaps very different to mine, and to really experience life through their eyes. It's quite simply, and perhaps quite profoundly, a chance for one human to understand another."

The Rez Sisters runs Nov. 9-17 at Laura C. Muir Performing Arts Theatre, Douglas College, 700 Royal Ave., New Westminster. Tickets ($8-$12) are available through the Massey Theatre, 604 521 5050.