|RELaps by Aria Evans|
This is the 29th edition of the annual festival - from a company that will be 35 years old next year. It dates back to the landmark moment in indigenous theatre, when Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters exploded onto the stage and offered a contemporary voice for First Nations cultures in North America. Since Tomson, there have been a number of Artistic Directors - when we brought the company to the first Origins Festival back in 2009, it was led by the wonderful Yvette Nolan. Today, the AD is a dynamic young Plains Cree man from Edmonton, Ryan Cunningham. I first met him in Brisbane back in March, and we've had a lot to talk about.... Ryan has curated a festival that deliberately ranges very wide - not only in the forms showcased but also in the content. For one thing, he's managed to bring over some Indigenous Australian artists from Mooghalin: Billy McPherson's play Cuz was read by First Nations actors from Canada, suggesting all sorts of parallels - and differences. But more striking for me was the number of pieces - often the most striking pieces in dramatic or theatrical terms - that were made by First Nations artists but which resisted easy categorisation as 'First Nations work'.
The work of First Nations artists is often reduced to mere representation - as if they existed merely to report on the state of their peoples to an otherwise unknowing world. Of course, that is never their own agenda: although there is inevitably a certain preoccupation with important questions about the meaning of indigenous cultures and identities in a world that largely shuns their traditional values and continues to marginalise their communities. At its most sophisticated, for example in Daniel David Moses' Almighty Voice and His Wife (the Native Earth piece at Origins 2009), theatre becomes a space to deconstruct the process whereby identities have been written onto native peoples, and a process to articulate an historically informed response through the live body in the current moment.
In this year's Weesageechak, there was certainly an element of this - but I found myself most drawn to pieces in which the First Nations identity of the artists was (at least apparently) coincidental. The young choreographer Aria Evans presented two pieces - a solo called link and a two-person piece called RElaps. The latter was particularly strong - looking at emotional violence in intimate relationships. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, the last night of the festival was a reading of a new script by a very well-known Canadian playwright, Brad Fraser - whose Métis identity has not hitherto been exactly proclaimed. Brad's play, called Ménage à Trois, deals with the unraveling lives of three friends over a period of several decades - there's a particular emphasis on shifting gender and sexual identities from the 70s to the present, and on parent-child relationships. The dramaturgy is deliberately fragmented, so that a scene from 2016 can be juxtaposed with one from the 70s. The three main characters are each played at various points by three actors of different ages - a scheme made all the more complex by the fact that one character changes gender.....
It's not remotely confusing, though. In fact, it feels very like the mental and emotional processes through which human beings tend to think about their personal stories. A moment from the distant past suddenly acquires new meaning in relation to the current moment. It's like Eliot's Four Quartets in its sense of all time being eternally present. Or even J.B. Priestley - when I talked to Brad after the reading, he acknowledged the influence of An Inspector Calls and Time and the Conways. If it's possible to imagine J.B Priestley crossed with Angels in America - that's sort of what this play is... Except that I think it's an indigenous play as well.
At no point is any character mentioned to be First Nations. Very possibly none of them are - although in last night's reading, every actor was a First Nations person, and that was very resonant. For one thing, the gender change is something that would not surprise more traditional Cree people - as Tomson Highway has pointed out, the Cree language has no genders, and fluid gender identities characterise Cree Trickster figures like Nanabush. At one point in the play a female character, Kit, is given the latest thing as a gift in the 70s - a digital watch. She comments that this is a new way to look at time - that it doesn't go in circles any more, but in a number line. The play seems deliberately to resist this, following the circular, indigenous, natural sense of time as a circular movement - time as something repeated and re-visited constantly, rather than time as a constant journey forward towards some "goal" or other. At the end of the play, a child conceived in the 70s is reflected in one born in the present - and there is a sense that one is the spiritual sister of the other. That attitude to time, history and spiritual connection - nestling within a play that seems on the surface to be very urban, postmodern and ironic - is surely about bringing indigenous ideas and spirituality into the contemporary space where First Nations people live today.