Tiffany Ayalik may be a contemporary adult actor from Yellowknife, NWT but she can relate to what nine-year-old Yvette Wong experienced in mid-20th-century Saskatchewan.
Ayalik plays Yvette and 11 other characters in Café Daughter, the one-woman show by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams that’s about to open as part of Canada Scene. The play follows Yvette, whose father is Chinese and whose mother is Cree, as she helps out in the family business and grows to be a young woman in her early 20s, all the while burdened by her mother’s well-intentioned advice: in a racist world, never reveal that you have Cree blood in you.
The play shows “how systemic racism might look one way to a nine-year-old and that changes when she’s a teenager and a woman,” says Ayalik at an Elgin Street coffee shop during a rehearsal break. “We see those things build, build, build until there’s a breaking point.”
Ayalik connects with this story on multiple levels. The child of an Inuk father and a white mother, she was raised by her mother to be proud of her mixed heritage but knowing little about her Inuk half. She says discovering that aspect of herself is an ongoing process but one which, like Yvette, gives her a dual perspective on the complexities of cultural identity.
And like Yvette, she hasn’t escaped systemic racism. As a post-secondary student in Alberta, she was occasionally called “Pocahontas,” the dispensers of that casual insult apparently being unaware that high cheekbones and long hair don’t necessarily equate to a First Nations bloodline.
Another time, she says, someone asked her, “’You ride horseback, don’t you?’ ‘No, I’m Inuit. I’m from the Arctic. We have caribou.’”
Ayalik relates these thoughtless incidents (she calls them “micro-aggressions”) with a laugh, but they clearly still sting. “Like Yvette, I was younger and didn’t really have the vocabulary to deal with it.”
Now 29, she also recalls walking through part of Winnipeg, the city where Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old girl of Aboriginal descent, was murdered in 2014, her death helping spark the current national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. “There were 10 pictures of (Indigenous) women with their birth date and a question mark for the date they died. I remember thinking, ‘This is not a safe place for me’ and having all-over body panic.”
“Why are we less than anybody else?” she asks.
When Ayalik was asked if she’d like to take on Café Daughter, she’d never heard of the play, which is based on the life of Senator Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, a Chinese-Canadian neuroscientist and member of the Gordon First Nation. Ayalik says her first read-through of a script doesn’t generally grab her because she’s too busy absorbing the plot and figuring out who’s who. When she returned to this one, however, she realized, “Holy crap, this is intense,” and she was sold on it.
She likes Yvette, describing her as hopeful but stubborn, kind and with a “beautiful defiance to her.”
Ayalik, who’s also one-half of the Juno-winning, Indigenous duo Quantum Tangle, mentions Charlie, Yvette’s father, as another of her favourite characters. Noting that she’s about as far removed as one could get from a Chinese dad in his mid-60s, she was especially apprehensive when she learned that Senator Dyck would be attending a show in Edmonton. Afterward, says Ayalik, the senator told her, “’You got my dad!’ It was the best feedback I’ve ever gotten.”
She also gets a lift out of playing what she calls the “thinly veiled racist people in the play. To be able to take control of that voice is very effective.”
Despite its profoundly dark moments, she says Café Daughter is hilarious in spots, humour being part of the antidote to racism. Being set in the 1950s and ‘60s is equally important, according to Ayalik: “I like period pieces because we think we’ve come a long way but the point of period pieces is, have we really come that far? That’s a good mirror they can offer us.”
Café Daughter is in the NAC’s Azrieli Studio June 16-18. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.
Patrick Langston’s other theatre picks for Canada Scene
Children of God: A musical by Oji-Cree writer Corey Payette about a First Nations family and a residential school in northern Ontario. Also part of the NAC English Theatre season. Babs Asper Theatre (formerly NAC Theatre) until June 18.
King Arthur’s Night: Niall McNeil, Marcus Youssef and James Long team up with alt-musician Veda Hille and a cast of actors with and without Down syndrome to re-create the epic tale of King Arthur. In the Azrieli Studio June 24-26.
Theatre in the Bush: An annual event from Whitehorse, Yukon that marries a bush party and interactive theatre. At Mackenzie King Estate in Gatineau Park, July 20-22.
For tickets and information about all Canada Scene events, please see nac-cna.ca.