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Aboriginal Theatre

Andrea Menard’s The Velvet Devil speaks to the involvement of Aboriginal peoples in the performing arts since the 1930s. Velvet, a Métis singer who leaves her home at Batoche for the bright lights of Toronto, is not exactly a work of fiction: in the 1930s several Aboriginal women from Saskatchewan performed in small halls, on reserves, and in Métis Communities across the Prairies. Inspired by Pauline Johnson, they traveled with a trunk of costumes singing songs, dancing and doing dramatic recitals of Johnson’s work. It is said that one show involved a woman playing the fiddle and another performing with a bullwhip; the latter would call for a male volunteer from the audience, stick a cigar in his mouth, and flick it away with her whip. Live performances came to a halt during the war years, but re-emerged later when Saskatchewan Aboriginal artists re-enacted plays such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (one of the few plays available in Aboriginal communities). Maria Campbell tells of rewriting this play, changing the houses of Montague and Capulet to those of the Dene and Cree; performances took place outdoors in front of a log cabin, with the audience seated on benches.

Jim Brady traveled around northern Saskatchewan, visiting families and communities; he would do dramatic readings of a scene, a chapter or a poem, usually accompanied by fiddle-playing and singing. The readings would continue over several days; when Brady left, the community would visit and share their understanding of the chapters, poems or scenes. Brady’s stories were highly political, and motivated the communities to become politically involved. Harry W. Daniels was one of Saskatchewan’s first Aboriginal actors; having studied under Dora Mava Moore in Toronto, he came home to Saskatchewan, did local acting in Regina, and went on to play the first Louis Riel in the Trial of Louis Riel. This play has been staged annually in Regina since 1967, making it Canada’s second-longest continuously running stage production after Anne of Green Gables.

In 1967, George Rega’s The Ecstacy of Rita Joe toured the prairies, featuring Margo Kane and Chief Dan George. As both performers were Aboriginal and it was an Aboriginal story, this was an inspiration for many Aboriginal artists who wanted to perform and write culturally relevant stories. Jim Buller, an Aboriginal artist from Saskatchewan, began his career in local high school productions and in the early 1970s went on to Toronto, where he founded the Association for Native Development in the Performing and Visual Arts (NDPVA) and later the Native Theatre School, now known as the Centre for Indigenous Theatre.

In the 1970s well-known performers began to emerge, including Joseph Charles of La Ronge and Gordon Tootoosis of Poundmaker First Nation, who began working in mainstream theatres and film companies. In 1976, Upsasik Theatre was founded by the Rossignol High School in Ile-à-la-Crosse. This community-based theatre group produced well-known artists Maureen Belanger and Duane Favel, who are two of the founding members of the Batoche Theatre Company. In 1980 the Native Survival School in Saskatoon (currently known as Joe Duquette High School) formed the Saskatoon Native Theatre Company, which produced community theatre utilizing renowned artists Maria Campbell, Tantoo Cardinal and Floyd Favel. Favel pursued his studies at the Native Theatre School in Ontario, the Tukak Teatret in Denmark, the Suziki Company of Togi in Japan, and the Italian Theatre Centre of Grotowski. He returned to Saskatchewan and founded the Red Tattoo Theatre, and more recently the Takwakin A Performance Laboratory.

Other well-known Saskatchewan Aboriginal artists include Bernelda Wheeler, Carol Greyeyes, Michael Greyeyes, Erroll Kinistino, Kennetch Charlette, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Winston Wuttanee, Yvette Nolan, Ken Williams, Joe Welsh, Mark Dieter, Peggy Vermette, Greg Daniels and many more. Donna Heimbecker and Kennetch Charlette founded in 1999 the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company (SNTC), whose directors include cultural figures such as Tantoo Cardinal and Gordon Tootoosis. SNTC produces a unique blend of community and professional arts programming, with shows and events that offer mentoring, skill development training, workshops, and career opportunities. SNTC productions include: Thunderstick, by Kenneth Williams; Wawatay, by Penny Gummerson; Andrea Menard’s The Velvet Devil; and 400 Kilometers, by Drew Hayden Taylor. The Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company is the first Aboriginal theatre in Canada to have a 110-seat theatre facility, located in Saskatoon.

Donna Heimbecker

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