Rez issues still powerful

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October 9, 2014

The Rez Sisters

By Tomson Highway

Directed by Peter Hinton

Performed at the Belfry Theatre

Sept. 16 – Oct. 19

Reviewed by Madeline McParland

In The Rez Sisters, the dark realities of Indigenous women’s lives are staged with a blend of humor and truth.  Peter Hinton has headed theatre centers and organizations from Vancouver to Montreal and now he brings The Rez Sisters to life again after 28 years. Originally launched in 1986, The Rez Sisters is written by celebrated First Nations writer, Tomson Highway. As someone born after the play was first produced, I have grown up learning about the complex issues stemming from Canada’s colonization of Indigenous peoples; this play shows the “rez” issues are just as relevant as when I first learned of them.

The play follows a cast of female Indigenous characters living on Wasaychigan Hill Reserve in Northern Ontario. The women are all obsessed with their dream of winning the BIG BINGO. Pelajita Patchnose (Tantoo Cardinal) wants to stop roofing houses and move closer to her sons in Toronto; Annie Cook (Lisa C. Ravensbergen) wants to become a singer; and Marie Adele Starblanket (Tasha Faye Evans) looks to lighten the financial load of having 14 children. My favorite was Pelajita Patchnose’s (Tantoo Cardinal) comedic timing: nonchalantly threatening to hit her friends over the head with her roofing hammer and telling Annie Cook she has a “mouth like a helicopter.” Her quick lines always brought fast laughs that relieved any tension in the scene.

This intimate play is set entirely on a raked stage, on top of a shingled roof. Kudos to Tracey Nepinak, whose character, Philomena Moosetail, spent the entire play in heels. Other than minimal assistance by simple sound effects and lighting, the actors bring the play to life through animated dialogue. Although effective, I found the dialogue to be quite aggressive as it is riddled with swearing, characters screaming threats at each other and Emily Dictionary (Reneltta Arluk) telling Veronique St. Pierre (Cheri Maracle) to shove a great big piece of –ahem- something, into her mouth.

I felt a peculiar balance in tone throughout the play: emotional monologues about abuse are contrasted by frank jokes about Indigenous men and sociopolitical hardship. The audience eventually discovers each woman’s reality and the struggles she experiences — whether it be abuse, alcoholism, segregation, sickness or death.

To me, the play’s pivotal scene occurs when Pelajita Patchnose (Tantoo Cardinal) gives a moving speech after Marie Adele Starblanket (Tasha Faye Evans) passes away. Pelajita stands in the center of the stage with the women surrounding her as she addresses the injustices experienced by women living on the reserve: from lack of access to proper medicine, abuse and poverty. Tantoo’s character also consistently refers to the reserve’s dirt roads and how their chief always claims he will pave them. She declares if she were chief, if any woman were chief, things like this would get done.

The play’s opening night was particularly moving because it was introduced with a cultural song and drumming by two younger Indigenous performers, one male and one female. This made the reality of the issues raised in the play all the more apparent to me.  Twenty-eight years later, young women of my generation are aware and listening with acute attention.

Madeline McParland is a UVic student and freelancer.

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