TORONTO — Stories of Indigenous women’s successes and struggles will be spotlighted in the inaugural season of the National Arts Centre’s Indigenous Theatre.
From the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to an uplifting tale of a young boy whose mother’s presence helps begin a spiritual journey, the season unveiled on Tuesday promises a diverse slate of theatre, plus concerts by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Susan Aglukark.
Of the 11 productions in the 2019-2020 season, nine are written and created by women, said artistic director Kevin Loring. Stories will also be presented in English, French and more than 10 Indigenous languages.
Representing an array of communities onstage was a considerable responsibility for the first national Indigenous theatre in the world, Loring acknowledged in an interview.
“You have to encapsulate an incredibly wide variety of different cultures, perspectives and ways of doing things,” the award-winning playwright said, adding the stories and creators span many coasts, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Arctic and even Australia.
“Our work has been… to not be pan-Indigenous but to be specifically Indigenous.”
The September-to-May season opens with “The Unnatural and Accidental Women,” by Metis-Dene playwright Marie Clements, which uses Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside as the setting for a reminder of the ongoing plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“Finding Wolastoq Voice” melds the choreography of Aria Evans with a script by playwright Samaqani Cocahq (Natalie Sappier) to tell the coming-of-age story of a woman who turns to the voices of her ancestors. The play is presented in English and Wolastoqiyik, a language that garnered national attention when New Brunswick singer Jeremy Dutcher made it the centrepiece of his Juno-winning album last year.
Drawing awareness to endangered Indigenous languages is important, Loring said. He was raised in British Columbia where the Nlaka’pamux’stn language faces similar risks of fading away.
“We’re getting to point now where we’re realizing if we don’t pick these languages up and feed them then they are going to go extinct,” he said.
“The work the artists are bringing forward is an act of reclamation.”
Loring’s own award-winning production “La ou le sang se mele / Where the Blood Mixes,” about the ripple effects of trauma from residential schools, will be presented in both French and English versions, with scenes featuring Nlaka’pamux’stn. The play won the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Drama.
“Minowin,” created by the B.C. dance company Dancers of Damelahamid, highlights northwest coastal cultures, while “Unikkaaqtuat” showcases Iqaluit musicians and circus artists alongside the 7 Fingers, a circus collective based in Montreal.
Rounding out the season is “Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools,” a dialogue of storytellers Evalyn Parry and Inuk artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, who met on an Arctic expedition from Iqaluit to Greenland, while “Inner Elder” finds humour in the darkness of a one-woman show about a young girl’s family life in 1970s Calgary.
Puppetry spectacle “Mokatek and the Missing Star” tells of a young boy who’s guided by animal spirits after the Polaris star goes missing.
A concert with Buffy Sainte-Marie and another that pairs Inuk singer Susan Aglukark and the NAC Orchestra will add musical flair to the season.
Australia’s “Hot Brown Honey” closes the year with a cabaret of political commentary, burlesque, hip hop and beat box performances. The show will bring an international perspective to a conversation about Indigenous issues, Loring said.
“It’s not just something we’re dealing with in Canada or North America,” he added.
“There’s incredibly strong parallels in Australia.”
The Indigenous Theatre kicks off its first season with Moshkamo: Indigenous Arts Rising, an arts and community festival of workshops, exhibits, culinary events and free programming that takes over the public spaces of the NAC from Sept. 11-29.
Tickets for the Indigenous Theatre’s 2019-2020 season are already on sale.
The inaugural year launches amid questions about its future after $3.5 million of requested federal funding was denied. Organizers will turn to fundraisers and sponsors to help offset the expected shortfall in future seasons, while Loring issued a letter on Facebook in early April lamenting the lack of support from Canadian Heritage in the 2019 federal budget.
“It was enough of a blow to really make me doubt what I was doing,” Loring explained when asked about his reaction on social media.
“We just have to scale back quite a bit how we imagined this department going forward,” he added.
Without federal support, the Indigenous Theatre faces a number of unique challenges as organizers look for money elsewhere. For instance, the major oil and gas companies who fund numerous Canadian theatres present problems when it comes to backing Indigenous projects.
“It’s very difficult for my department to directly ask (for support) from extraction companies of any kind because within the Indigenous community it’s such a fraught conversation,” Loring said.
“We would immediately look like we were being bought out by the corporations, so the artists would feel very uncomfortable coming and working in that environment. So that’s a challenge for the foundation that goes out looking for philanthropy. There’s a large sector of business that we need to be very careful of how we engage with.”
The artistic director said for now he’s focused on rolling out a successful debut and making sure the Indigenous Theatre becomes a permanent part of the NAC.
“My job as the founding artistic director is to try and lay the groundwork for the future… so that we have a strong, stable department going forward when I leave this place,” he said.
“Ultimately it is worth it, and it’s worth fighting for.”