All Photos: Mark Dusseault
…the nation is in great need to see strong and inspiring Native women—who swim in their abilities and live strong, if not difficult lives.
While the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women continues to grow, iconic Indigenous playwright Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters celebrates Native women with all their flaws and complex relationships. Good timing to say the least. Timing plays a huge role in the latest version of the well-loved play. According to director Peter Hinton, he wanted to direct Rez Sisters many years ago, and Belfry Theatre’s artistic director Michael Shamata made attempts to produce the play for two years.
Timing plays a role, almost as an unseen character. As now, the field of seasoned actors from which each character was perfectly cast is plentiful. Indigenous expertise is found with Ryan Cunningham (Métis) as assistant director, and of course, Tomson himself. Although Tomson is never present during any stage of this production, he haunts each performance with an undeniably ghost-like presence. This play is extremely important today, as it stars an excellent ensemble cast of all Native women—and one two-spirit dancer—which gives voice to the lack of female leadership on-reserve. The play also unapologetically includes the ongoing violence against (Native) women. Rez Sisters is pulled from the (Canadian) playwright’s archives, and with only a few updates, is able to be enjoyed by (mostly non-native) audiences today.
Tantoo Cardinal—Cree actor with a list of impressive credits that includes activism on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)—grounds the entire performance as leader, as Elder, as Mama Bear in her role. She is the voice of reason among the hysterical voices, gossipy voices, extreme voices, and babbling voices. Tomson writes these females as three-dimensional, living, breathing and dreaming women who want better things in life, including the bingo jackpot of 500,000 dollars.
Reneltta Arluk plays the bi-sexual left-the-rez-but-came-back Emily Dictionary. Tiffany Ayalik as Zhaboonigan Peterson is the extremely damaged, hanging-on-by-a-thread rape survivor adoptee of Veronique St. Pierre, a tightly wound presumably religious nosey-body played perfectly by Cheri Maracle. Tasha Faye Evans plays a believably cancer-ridden Marie Adele Starblanket who is enticed to make the trip to Toronto to play in the world’s largest Bingo (despite her illness) by the wide-eyed music enthusiast Annie Cook played by Lisa C. Ravensbergen. We learn the simplicity of the Rez Sister’s wants through Philomena Moosetail who dreams of owning her own toilet, played by Tracey Nepinak.
Originally, the role of Nanabush, (trickster) was written for Tomson Highway’s brother and dynamic dancer, Renee Highway, who passed away in 1990. Waawaate Fobister employs his skills as a trained contemporary dancer to convey line-less expressions we follow with intuitive understanding.
To say that the 2014 Belfry Theatre’s The Rez Sisters is a hit would be an understatement; this play has impacted and will continue to impact theatregoers on Vancouver Island in many ways. It is a shame that there are no plans at this time for the production to tour, as the nation is in great need to see strong and inspiring Native women—who swim in their abilities and live strong, if not difficult lives. Besides, it’s great theatre, a historic theatre experience, and yes—completely timely.
The Rez Sisters can bee seen at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, British Columbia September 16th – October 19th 2014. Contact the Belfry Theatre Box Office to order tickets: 250-385-6815 firstname.lastname@example.org