Gabriel Dumont would be intrigued.
Dumont, the ally of Louis Riel and leader of the Métis forces during the 1885 North-West Rebellion against the Canadian government, fled Canada for the U.S. after the rebellion was quashed and Riel hung.
In the U.S., he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, but he didn’t stick for long. However, it turns out he did dream of creating something similar in Canada to spotlight the struggle of the Métis people to reclaim their rights.
Dumont, who died in 1906, never realized his dream. But now a pan-Canadian team which includes 10 writers has breathed new life into it with Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont, which opens the National Arts Centre’s French Theatre season next week.
The show – which travels to Montreal, Winnipeg and Saskatoon after its world premiere here – is part-vaudeville, part epic, part meditation on themes like Indigenous identity and who owns the land, according to its creators.
Set in history (it follows the trajectory of the rebellion) but not strictly historical, it includes a boxing ring, a quiz show and Don Cherry.
And, in a sesquicentennial year when shows like Children of God, Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion and the revival of the opera Louis Riel – all at the NAC – have refocused our attention on the fate of Indigenous peoples in Canada, Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont promises to continue our national self-examination.
For some insights on the show, Patrick Langston spoke to its four key creators. The following has been edited for brevity.
Alexis Martin, head writer (born in Montreal)
“I had written plays about French Canadian communities inside Quebec, but then I wanted to speak about their experience outside Quebec. The memory of Riel and Dumont is fading here, and it’s important to get back to that. (Fellow writer) Jean Marc Dalpé and I were researching this when we stumbled across a letter by Dumont about a Métis wild west show. We said, Wow, this is incredible! We want to do this.
“Riel is the hero of the Métis people, but Dumont was the general, the warrior. He’s a bit mysterious, and that’s interesting for us as authors.
“It’s important to tell the story of a big nation like Canada. It’s not always as beautiful as it’s presented. People forget that. A lot of Indigenous people around the world are facing the bulldozer of what we call progress.”
Yvette Nolan, head writer (born in Saskatchewan to an Algonquin mother and an Irish immigrant father)
“I have an unhealthy fascination with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. At the time, there was no economy for Indigenous peoples and our practices were being outlawed, so people got paid and we hid stuff, ceremonies, inside the shows. A lot of pow-wow dances are traditional but they’ve been Buffalo-Billed into something spectacular. It’s a double-edged sword.
“Having 10 writers wasn’t easy. We were working across several cultures, sitting across the table and hearing each other and moving the story forward. (Manitoba-born Métis writer) Andrea Menard pushed hard to have women’s voices heard. We asked people to self-edit; instead it grew, and that was tough – OK, this is gone, that’s gone!.
“Some of the show is satiric, there’s magic realism, some of it is quite spectacular.”
Jean Marc Dalpé, head writer & performer (born in Ottawa)
“When I told my wife about this idea, she said, OK, two white guys from Quebec are going to do this? You should talk to Yvette Nolan and other Indigenous people. We made an A-list, and everyone said, Yes. So we have descendants of the four nations telling the story: Métis, First Nations, English and French.
“The show is not about historical revisionism, because each nation has its own point of view. All these different takes came together around the table, and we said, ‘Let’s get those contradictions into the show – it’ll provoke.’ It’s much more interesting that there are multiple viewpoints. The wild west show gives it structure: it’s like vaudeville, with all these different numbers.
Mani Soleymanlou, director & performer (born in Iran, now lives in Montreal)
“When they first approached me, I said this isn’t for me – I can’t do historical stuff. Then I started reading and saw it’s part of my examination of identity. For me, it was an eye-opener that this part of history is important for everyone. We need to be collectively responsible for the past so we can grow and not just pretend this is only about the Métis.
“Having the show in a Wild West format allows it to be epic, larger than life, and tell a complicated story. We’re going left field with the costumes.
“Using tableaux is challenging but there’s freedom in it. It allows us to move from one theatrical style to another, to go full blast, have fun with each one and then go to the next one. It’s more liberating than challenging.”
Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show is being presented in French in the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre Oct. 18-21. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca