Thursday 16 November 2017

Only Drunks : a few cliches, but timely truths too
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : In 1991's Someday -- prequel to last night's remount of the 1996 show Only Drunks & Children Tell the Truth -- Grace goes back to her native band village at Otter Lake on Christmas Eve. This is where she was taken from during the infamous "60's scoop" by government welfare agencies. Social workers alleged that 1,000's of children on hundreds of reserves across this vast land were being neglected and/or abused and had to be rounded up like feral dogs to be saved from their family tormentors. (See Addendum for details.)

Back at her birthplace Grace meets her birth mother Anne and her blood sister Barb : she tells them her adoptive name is Janice Worth. She doesn't relate to Grace, lit.-or-fig., and the reunion is aborted after but an hour.  Thus the show's title -- Someday. Playwright Drew Hayden Taylor describes his follow-up 1996 script Only Drunks & Children Tell the Truth as designed to take Someday "a step further". Well, not quite. A giant step for sure it turns out.

Elder daughter Janice (Chelsea Rose Tucker) has anxious feelings about returning to her late mother's home at Otter Lake, three hours out of Toronto. Born there as Grace, she struggles to be worthy of her original name.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper

How the storyline plays out : As Only Drunks starts, Barb comes to Toronto.  She has brought along her boyfriend Rodney and his adopted brother Tonto. Both are characters straight off the Hobbema Reserve as imagined by Bill Kinsella. The three of them break into Janice's tony apartment to convince her to return to Otter Lake. They are agog at her digs : she has all the trappings one might expect from a hotshot entertainment industry lawyer including original art by indigenous painters Maxine Noel, Daphne Odjig and Roy Thomas on the walls. As she gazes out at Janice's view high atop Toronto's distinctive hotel de ville in Nathan Phillips Square, Barb quips : "It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to put a land claim on it."

Barb tells her that a mere three days previously their mother Anne died. Janice/Grace needs to pay her her last respects, Barb insists. The funeral was well attended, but it didn't heal her pain altogether. "Nothing like seeing a bunch of overweight middle-age men in mismatched suits standing in a row," she mourns. Act 1 is mostly a bunch of manic antics over coffee about white people's conspiracy theories -vs- natives' wisdom of the elders. Tonto says the answer to the "How?" and the "Why?" that white people always ask is a simple "Why not...?" Janice finally agrees to make the trek.

Back at Otter Lake she confronts two stereotypical symbols of native life : (1) a magnified elaboration on Socrates' in vino veritas belief whilst swilling a noggin of booze with sister Barb, and (2) an awakening of sorts when her mother's birthday gift of a dreamcatcher is revealed. Mom wrote to Janice Grace that the dreamcatcher is designed so good dreams will float through its spaces and the morning sun will dry up any tears from bad dreams that get caught up in its webs.

Result ? Janice reaches through her veil of fears into her indigenous past. The prospect of a more genuine and permanent reconciliation between her two selves and her two cultures is held out by the time her hangover subsides at her mother's graveside.

Scriptique : Fact is Only Drunks was written fully six years after the 11-week standoff between Canadian troops and Mohawks at Oka, Quebec.
Patrick Cloutier, a 'Van Doo' perimeter sentry, and Anishinaabe Warrior Brad Larocque, a University of Saskatchewan economics student, facing off became one of Canada's most widely circulated images.
Photo & cutline credits : Wikipedia

Thus the quaint-catchiness of the Only Drunks sketches have to be taken as just that. And Taylor makes no apology for his approach. His website declares from the get-go : "Welcome to where theatre, humour, First Nations philosophy, literature and identity all walk hand in hand... Drew has spent the last two decades traveling the world about it from the Aboriginal perspective...he has managed to bridge the gap between cultures by tickling the funny bone."

So if the gibes on stage seem a tad glib or romanticized or the points-of-view time-stamped from days long-gone-by, fact is there is no one story, no one truth in any of this subject matter. And its themes transcend indigenous history : as an adoptive parent watching Only Drunks, I was smitten and awash in tears during Grace's final soliloquy. None of my response had anything to do with Canadian first peoples. So a Bullseye! from Taylor in a target he wasn't directly aiming at.

Production values that shine through : To not start with Brian Kenney's set would be just wrong. The back-scrim projections of downtown TO contrasted with the Otter Lake woods were spot-on. Janice's swank condo furniture & paintings were delightfully contrasted with the tatty overstuffed chairs and Furniture Barn kitchen setting back home, too. Lighting by Jonathon Kim worked some magic, and Cheyenne Mabberley's outfits for the group were plain funk. (Buffy Ste. Marie's recessional to the show was, I think, "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying" -- utterly smart.)

Acting pin-spots : Never having seen Chelsea Rose Tucker previously -nor- the work of Director Columpa C. Bobb, all I can say is My, my. Together what a team! Tucker's footwork amidst the three visitors from Otter Lake in her apartment was exceptional blocking & execution. And without exaggeration I must say, too, that the drinking / drunk / hangover sequences of Tucker and Ashley Chartrand that carried much of Act 2 were the most realistic such I perhaps have ever witnessed (on stage...). For their part, Messrs. Houle and Cound as the class clown / party-boy cut-up -&- faux medicine man, respectively, pulled off each of their roles convincingly, too. 

Who gonna like : Given the views in the Scriptique section above, I was fully prepared to come away concluding that this show met expectations that had been set a bar or two lower than normal for BLR. How presumptuous and borderline arrogant of me.

This show is tightly cast. Tightly directed : blocked, set, lit, prop'd, stage-business'd -- all of it. No question personal life experience drew muffled sobs from me others might not. But Taylor's humour underscoring all the completely relevant Reconciliation matters that will be before Canadians for decades hence was a treat. This is Go to! stuff for people whose hearts want to beat faster and almost burst at certain moments.

Particulars : Written by Drew Hayden Taylor.  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre, Artistic Director Donna Spencer.  At the Firehall Arts Centre, Gore @ Cordova. Until December 2nd.  Run-time 95 minutes in two acts, one intermission between.  Tickets & schedule information via or by phone, 604.689.0926

Production crew :  Director Columpa C. Bobb.  Set Designer Brian Kenney.  Costume Designer Cheyenne Mabberley. Lighting Designer Jonathon Kim.  Stage Manager Jillian Perry.

Performers :  Ashley Chartrand (Barb).  Chris Cound (Tonto).  Braiden Houle (Rodney).  Chelsea Rose Tucker (Grace \ Janice).

Addendum to Only Drunks :  Matters not whether it's Tacoma's Rachel Dolezal who, en masque, had worked her way up and through talent and hard work was named chief of the region's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter.  In 2015 she was outed as 100% Caucasian and promptly, quite unceremoniously, dismissed. 

Or consider the fate of famed Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden : over the years he has averred, variously, to having at least a spot of Nipmuc, Mi'kmaq, Ojibway and/or Metis DNA. 

Both of these highly publicized personalities point in the same direction, viz. that the subject of blood quantum is cropping up more and more these days. What percentage of one's blood is traceable to a particular racial group? Both slaveholders in America and Hitler's Nazis subscribed to the "just one drop" test : just one drop even generations back on either mother or father's side would find one labeled as Negro or Jew. In the end in today's world to which group does / must / should / can one "belong" is no easy question to answer.

Such a question was central to the OD script as noted in the review. Grace was a victim of government's "60's scoop" that was culturally parallel to the residential school farrago. (Worth remembering in that context that residential school conscription had begun before Canada even became a country in 1867, and did not ring its final bell until 1996, nearly 30 years after I emigrated here. )

The site notes that the "60's scoop" exercise was, bluntly put, "the mass removal of Aboriginal children into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands." Country-wide the program is estimated to have resulted in as many as 20,000 youngsters either fostered or adopted out to both Canadian and American white families. Thus what we like to think of as our "liberal, enlightened, kinder, gentler Canada" ain't necessarily so.


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