Saturday, February 04, 2012

Almighty Voice and His Wife in Saskatoon

There are rare times in the world of theatre when one feels honored to be present at a performance. Where a profound shared experience is being carved into living memory and at the same time a deeply personal response shutters through the body articulating, "I am here bearing witness to an important event."  

Peter Brook wrote in The Empty Space: 
Repetition, representation, assistance. These words sum up the three elements, each of which is needed for the event to come to life. But the essence is still lacking, because any three words are static, any formula is inevitably an attempt to capture a truth for all time. Truth in the theatre is always on the move.
And so the truth of what I felt, what I experienced, what so deeply touched the core of what it means to be human is on the move and fleeting. The light of the moon, that shone so powerfully during Almighty Voice and His Wife, so liberating, challenging and joyous - will that moon remain steady, long & true? The moon plays and illuminates the next night & the night after that & the day after till ... will I still hear that song of the faces of the moon ... the old lady ... the young girl ... the dark side?

I so desperately needed to capture the essence. It wasn't the "what" I had seen that requested reflection it was the "why". Why had the performance released such force. I knew what I had seen but could I describe the necessary elements or conditions that create the ebb and flow of living theatre? The tide that washes through?

Daniel David Moses claims in his Artist's statement, "Someday I will be a storyteller". Yet he is truly a gifted and acclaimed playwright of today. In his essay How My Ghosts Got Pale Faces (Pursued by a Bear, Talks, Monologues and Tales, Exile Editions, 2005) he describes, while working in the fall of 1978 as a researcher at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, encountering the story of the young Cree warrior Kisse-Manitou-Wayou who lived & was killed in Saskatchewan in 1897.
"I knew as soon as I came across the story that I would someday do something with it, write something about it.  I made a photocopy, started a file." 
Almighty Voice and His Wife was penned in 1991. The play is as simple as any act of brutal colonialism, that culture clash which occurs at contact.  And it is as complex as the struggle for Truth and Reconciliation

Act I shares with disarming dialogue, gentle poetics and rich humor a tragic love story. A clear, relentless narrative articulated in linear scenic form which hardly prepares the way for Act II, a wild confounding minstrel show performed in vaudeville whiteface shattering, mocking and exaggerating every possible stereotypical racist behavior. It is an exocism. It is cartharsis.  Daniel David Moses is a magnificent writer devoted to language and place. Almighty Voice and His Wife is a masterpiece finding its place easily beside Shakespeare.

Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA) was founded in 1982 making it the oldest professional Aboriginal performing arts company in Canada, creating plays that are the seminal works of Canadian drama and forging a central place for development of major Native theatre artists. A history and tradition unwavering from their
 "seven traditional principles which inform decisions in all undertakings. It is our belief that these tenets not only honour Aboriginal values, but are universal to all cultures in various manifestations: Courage, Generosity, Tolerance, Strength of Character, Patience, Humility, Wisdom."

Approaching thirty years of survival NEPA has crafted an ensemble of workers dedicated to performance and pedagogy.
The present artistic director Tara Beagan has eloquently documented this intimate process in "Elder up! : A Mentor/Mentee Memoir". (Canadian Theatre Review Vol. 147 Summer 2011).

The Backstage is a relatively small box theatre. Seats, I speculate, around 200 and on Jan. 27 was filled to capacity. The majority of the audience were First Nation and predominantly under forty. They embraced the action whole heartedly. They reacted to each and every detail with a generous emotional response. They brought an active interest and life to the watching. Did they know the story? Was it theirs? They certainly knew of Duck Lake and Regina and the Queen. They understood the spoken Cree and other more subtle references I certainly missed. They laughed and laughed and were still. They allowed the storytelling to totally envelope and inhabit the moment with no actor/spectator separation. They had this overwhelming desire to live the moment clearly and intensely. In fact, sitting across from me, at the final movement of what I experienced as a dance of redemption with a cry/song so ancient and so tomorrow that penetrated the heart, a man wearing a large black stetson sobbed. Not sentimental tears but deep sobs of remembered pain and hope. His partner stroked his back.

The actors Paula-Jean Prudat and Derek Garza gave of themselves fully. Derek Garza as Almighty Voice played within his vast vocal and physical range with a huge confidence. A confidence which allowed a gentle direct contact with the only child in the audience. He addressed specific lines to the young ears and later flirted and teased a young women with charm and elegance. A confidence that allowed, what Globe and Mail critic Kelly Nestruck describes, "emotional arcs" sweep through his well trained  presence from and towards the creative source. A confidence that somehow allowed Paula-Jean Prudat  dare stretch to her limits. 

She pushed and risked what felt like every fiber of her being taking us dangerously close to the edge-point of performance. Standing in the audience aisle she hurled vindictive hate towards the ghost of Almighty Voice with uncontrollable venom and it was all I could do to restrain from reaching out and holding her hand to comfort and calm her ...  this ... this farcically dressed Mountie Women/ whiteface White Girl / Wife of Almighty Voice / Metis of Meadow Lake. She is quoted in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, “When I first read the story it really did terrify me and yet I was hugely compelled and intrigued by it. The beauty and poetry of Daniel David Moses’ script is superb.” More tellingly she states, “It’s definitely a homecoming in that way. Telling the story where it originated and honouring the people from that area is hugely important.” An echo of the Artistic Director's program notes.
Former Native Earth Artistic Director Yvette Nolan (co-hosting at Hardly Art) brings the show she programmed while at NEPA - a show that cannot be stopped - to her current prairie home base. As demand for the show leads it to home soil, this play solidifies its place in our theatrical canon at the age of twenty-one, just as Almighty Voice himself secured a claim to infamy at twenty-one. We offer you our work - work we present with pride - as thanks to all of the caretakers of the lands wherein we play.
Do I now grasp the essence? Know the conditions that create great theatre? Seems possible. Devotion, Dedication, Desire, Danger. All were present that evening. All intermingled woven together. Stitched together by all. 

Eugenio Barba writes in The Paper Canoe,  "Theatre is men and women who do it ... a way of thinking and dreaming of the theatre, of materializing it and transmitting it through the centuries."  

And they do it again and again and again. Practice.  

The essence is, In the end, to give thanks. To recognize the moment and to be responsible to the "lands wherein we play."

:: Note ::  ... go see it wherever it plays ... returning to school, beginning a new term, taking attendance the first name of the student in my GFA (Grade 9 General Fine Arts) class was Almightyvoice, Danielle ... she was shy and didn't want to share what she knew about the story of Almighty Voice ... but she said she knew ... Hoka Hey! ...