Actor Craig Lauzon admits that a moving bus isn’t the easiest venue to perform in. That’s where he does the one-man show Tales of an Urban Indian by Canadian playwright Darrell Dennis. Part of the upcoming undercurrents theatre festival, the site-specific show takes place in a moving OC Transpo bus, with audience members as the passengers.
“If you’ve ever stood on a bus while it’s moving and turning and stopping at lights, you know that can be challenging,” says Lauzon. “Now try that while presenting 50 characters and a 45-page monologue.”
The veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Farce says the idea of the moving bus is to map a route that reflects some of what’s talked about in the script. There’s also a high level of intimacy in a bus that’s suited to the story.
The heart of that story is Simon Douglas, a talkative lad who’s only too happy telling all and sundry about his rocky life as a First Nations kid who moved from the rez to the big city. Along for the ride, thanks to Simon’s memories, are dozens of other characters and voices, including his grandmother.
“Simon is a hero, flawed and imperfect but a real hero,” says Toronto-based Lauzon, who is of Ojibwa descent and grew up in Ottawa. “He goes through so much in his life and is able to pick himself up and make good. He’s a beacon of hope for young people in our community.”
Playwright Dennis, originally from Shuswap First Nation in B.C. and now living in Los Angeles, says he wrote the semi-autobiographical play to explore the idea that “We all have the choice of going down this path or that path, regardless of it being an Indigenous life or a non-Indigenous life.”
The play examines issues like race, identity and survival in that context of choice.
Dennis says he built humour into the play because it’s at the core of First Nations life. “It’s a survival mechanism for us. Even though where I grew up was really poor, we were always laughing.”
The playwright, who’s also a film/television/stage actor and comedian, premiered Tales of an Urban Indian in 2003. Nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award, it’s been produced in both buses and conventional theatres in Canada and the U.S., translated into French, and is now headed to Australia. The script has also just received funding from Telefilm Canada for a feature film with Dennis as director.
“This thing has taken on so many forms,” says Dennis, who is doing a one-night revival of the show in New Westminster, B.C. after having retired from performing it years ago. “It’s almost like this franchise now.”
Lauzon says the play is still relevant – “almost more relevant” – 16 years after its debut.
“These issues that are brought up in this story are still happening today and are still being struggled with in our community. Having said that … I find that the dramatic moments are better served with the humour and vice versa.”
Also at this year’s undercurrents:
Broken Tailbone: Carmen Aguirre (Blue Box, 2012) returns with an exploration of Latinx dance halls that braids a dance lesson with her favourite topics, including politics and culture.
Raising Stanley/Life with Tulia: Stories of four guide dogs that beg the question, is a guide dog just a dog that works? A mix of storytelling, painting and more. ASL interpretation Feb. 7 and 16.
Coach of the Year: Ottawa playwright/actor Pierre Brault created and directs this show about a beloved junior A hockey team coach forced to confront what he’s done to his players.
Light(less): A boy’s journey to capture the light of the moon. This play has no words.
By-Product.D-Rivé: Emerging and established artists join forces in a portrait of the National Capital Region. Produced by the University of Ottawa Department of Theatre.
The Archivist: Shaista Latif’s autobiographical, politically tinged look back at growing up poor in Scarborough after emigrating with her family from Afghanistan.
The Persistent Stain: A Canadian punk band discovers popularity isn’t all they thought it would be. This short show is a work-in-progress.
undercurrents: theatre below the mainstream is at Arts Court and on a bus Feb. 6-16. Tickets & information: undercurrentsfestival.ca, 613-232-6162