Indigenous Theatre’s first season features 9 productions by women and 10 Indigenous languages

Aria Evans Photo: Andre Reinders

The first season of the NAC’s new Indigenous Theatre is brimming with promise and ambition.

Artistic Director Kevin Loring and his team have lined up shows from across the country and elsewhere, with a major emphasis on the resilience of Indigenous women. Along with English and French, more than 10 Indigenous languages are spoken in the various productions. There’s a vigorous mix of both established and emerging artists as well as performances by the likes of singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie and Inuk recording artist Susan Aglukark.

The season launched with a bash in the public spaces of the centre including dancers, drummers and a DJ. The Mohawk chef Rich Francis was on hand as it was announced that he’ll be hosting a dinner on Sept. 12 and developing a menu that will be served in the NAC restaurant through the festival that will accompany the opening performance of the theatre.

Kevin Loring.

Announced in 2016, the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre is the first national Indigenous theatre department in the world. Its debut season begins 50 years after George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a young Indigenous woman in the city, opened the Studio Theatre (now the Azrieli Studio) at the then-new NAC in 1969. All the works presented by the department are based on, performed or created by Indigenous artists.

Despite the gradual proliferation of Indigenous theatre on Canadian stages, the launch of this inaugural season was unimaginable, Loring said during an interview. “We were always told, ‘You are going to be niche; you should broaden your horizons by playing other things.’ To be in a position where we are ‘presencing’ our stories on the national stage is an important moment in the evolution of the way we priorize culture in the country.”

Those stories are a critical element in national reconciliation, reclamation of identity and the renaissance of Indigenous performing arts, says Loring, a Governor General award-winning playwright, director and actor from the Nlaka’pamux First Nation in British Columbia.

Michelle Thrush channels her Inner Elder. Photo: Ben Laird.

“In the Indigenous tradition, stories have a purpose. They are reflections of how we came to be. They are ways in which people communicate and share stories and cosmologies, but in a very real way stories have the power to heal … In Indigenous culture, we don’t separate art and culture; art is culture. In Indigenous culture, a story has a song and a song has a dance, and the reason for doing those things is to keep a positive energy in the space.”

When Loring spoke to ARTSFILE in late 2017, several months after taking on the job of artistic director, he said that one of his challenges would be making Indigenous people feel comfortable at the NAC, which can be perceived as an elite settler arts centre.

He now expects the NAC’s launch strategies will make people feel welcome. Those strategies have included the Indigenous Women’s Art Market at the NAC this past December. He says it was attended by more than 4,000 people, including Indigenous people from all over the region, 75 per cent of whom had never before set foot in the NAC.

Élise Boucher-Degonzague in Mokatek and the Missing Star. Photo: Marianne Duval.

The richness and diversity of the new season’s first two and a half weeks should prove to be a big draw as well. Starting Sept. 11, Mòshkamo: Indigenous Arts Rising, an Indigenous arts and community festival, takes over the NAC with culinary events, free public programming and family-friendly activities, and much more. All of the NAC’s disciplines – theatre, dance and music – are involved.

Loring created a buzz earlier this month when he posted on Facebook that the new season would be “diminished” because Heritage Canada had not awarded the NAC any extra funding for Indigenous Theatre. That problem has been overcome for now, he says. “The first season is intact, but really what has to be re-imagined and adjusted is the scope and scale going forward … But the NAC has made a commitment that Indigenous Theatre will be part of the institution.”

Unikkaaqtuat. Illustration Germaine Arnaktauyok.

Here’s what the new season looks like.

The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements

Babs Asper Theatre, Sept. 11-21. In English, featuring Coast Salish (co-production with NAC English Theatre).

Clements’ play delves into the story of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, with a focus on Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. Loring says the play by the Métis-Dene artist debuted in Vancouver almost two decades ago but has never had a full production. “Marie was doing this work long before it became a big headline. It’s about the ever-present tragedy we have to wrestle with.”

Clements’ show is also one of nine in the 11-show season created and written by women. “It tells us how powerful and important (women) are to Indigenous culture,” says Loring. “They’re the powerhouses behind a lot of the work that’s being generated.”

Là où le sang se mêle / Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring

Azrieli Studio, Sept. 13-15 (French) & Sept. 16-18 (English), featuring Nlaka’pamux’stn.

Set in British Columbia’s Fraser Canyon, Loring’s play explores the intergenerational pain of the residential school system. The show won the Governor General’s Award for Drama in 2009 and played the NAC the next year. Loring says he’s been getting requests to bring it back. “It’s a way to say, ‘Hey I’m Kevin Loring, and this what I do.’”

Mokatek and the Missing Star (Mokatek et l’étoile disparue) by Dave Jenniss

Le Salon, Sept. 13-14. In French, featuring Anishinaabemowin with chants in Abenaki.

A journey of self-discovery, Mokatek and the Missing Star explores creation stories. Those stories “are foundational, moral narratives that define the values of people and the cosmology and the way in which people imagine the universal relationships that they’re part of,” says Loring. “And they’re really fantastical stories, and great source material, especially theatrically.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie & Susan Aglukark (with the NAC Orchestra)

Southam Hall, Sept. 15 (Sainte-Marie) and Sept. 20 (Aglukark and NACO)

Two award-winning singer-songwriters take the NAC’s main stage with everything from powerful, history-conscious songs to throat singing.

Finding Wolastoq Voice by Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier)

Azrieli Studio, Sept. 21-23. In English, featuring Wolastoqiyik.

A coming-of-age story of a young woman, this dance-theatre hybrid comes from New Brunswick. “The playwright is in a voiceover narrating the play while a dancer-choreographer interacts with this very elaborate set piece,” says Loring. “Through the interaction between the dancer and the design and the narrator, the piece actually kind of takes place inside your mind, in the spaces between those parts.”

Minowin, created by Dancers of Damelahamid

Azrieli Studio, Sept. 26-28

This world premiere features the Dancers of Damelahamid, an Indigenous dance company from the Northwest coast of British Columbia. Their masked dance celebrates the diverse Indigenous cultures of Canada with a blend of narrative, song, movement, and new multimedia.

Unikkaaqtuat, a collaboration between The 7 Fingers, Artcirq, and Taqqut Productions

Babs Asper Theatre, Jan. 9-12, 2020. Featured language: Inuktitut.

A new generation of storytellers and performers from across Nunavut and Nunavik uses circus arts, theatre, music, and video to explore Inuit founding myths. Such stories are “Part of the cultural reclamation that goes along with having a renaissance (of performing arts),” says Loring. “It’s where you come from, the existence of your identity.”

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools by Evalyn Parry, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Erin Brubacher and Elysha Poirier with Cris Derksen

Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre/Great Canadian Theatre Company, Jan. 22-Feb. 9 (co-presentation with GCTC). Featured language: Kalaallisut

Queer theatre-maker Evalyn Parry and Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, who met on an Arctic expedition, join forces in a conversation and concert about their separate heritages, including colonial histories, power structures and the changing climate. The show “explores art, the myth of the north versus the reality, the relationship between these two artists,” says Loring.

Inner Elder by Michelle Thrush

Azrieli Studio, April 7-10. In English, featuring Cree.

Gemini Award-winning Cree artist Michelle Thrush takes audiences on a funny and powerful journey of transformation as a young girl searches for her Inner Elder among the shambles of her family life in 1970s Calgary.

Hot Brown Honey by The Briefs Factory (Australia)

Babs Asper Theatre, May 5-9. In English.

A hip hop-infused, all-female session in consciousness-raising about race and gender. “This show is off the rails – it’s so good,” says Loring. “The conversations they’re bringing forward are the same conversation we’re having in Canada: around colonization, reconciliation, dealing with those major issues. I wanted to present a piece that showed our audience that these conversations are happening all across the planet.”

Hot Brown Honey comes from Australia. Photo: Dylan Evans

For a complete listing of NAC Indigenous Theatre performances and tickets as well as information about the Mòshkamo festival, visit indigenoustheatre.ca 

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.