Staging Ethnicity

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Signal Theatre’s Artistic Director was invited to present a manifesto at the 2012 PuSh Festival in Vancouver, that examined among other things, the staging of ethnicity.

man·i·fes·to n
A public written declaration of principles, policies, and objectives.
Artistic manifestos can be a call to arms, a statement of principles, or a line drawn in the sand. They can be a provocation and a challenge to existing tastes and aesthetics, an analysis of landmark productions, a spotlight on seminal points in time, or simply a confirmation of emerging trends, values and practices.

The PuSh Assembly has commissioned a thought-provoking manifesto from acclaimed First Nations actor, choreographer, director and educator Michael Greyeyes. His manifesto will address the inherent complexities of staging ethnicity—what defines “native” theatre, what the public expects it to be, and how this impacts those who create and experience theatre made by contemporary native artists.

The entire manifesto will be published serially, via this blog.

Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday

An empty stage. On a large backdrop, a single image is projected—white lettering against a black background.

IMAGE: Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday

An actor walks on stage and approaches a large wooden podium on stage L. He regards the audience intently, relishing the moment.

(forcefully) I’m not an Indian Chief… (a beat—then a sly ¼ turn of the head, with a charming smile and announcer voice) …but I do play one on television.

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IMAGE: Michael Greyeyes as Tecumseh in the PBS Series “We Shall Remain” 

And this, by any reasonable standard, makes me an expert on the matter… Wouldn’t you agree?  My name is Michael Greyeyes. I am Aboriginal. I am Cree. I am a westerner. I am here to discuss… yesterday.

Yesterday seems as good a place to start as any. Even though we have been convinced that yesterday is gone—I don’t think it is actually.

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William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead… (a beat) It isn’t even past.”

Yesterday, I woke up. It was a quiet morning in Toronto. Very little snow, so far this winter. The sky was predominantly grey. The temperature was warm for February. Yesterday was a rather non-descript sort of day. (candidly, honestly) Yesterday, I realized I was without a past. I do not have a name.

The actor pauses for a moment—a look of confusion passes across his face. He recovers.

…Where was I? Yes. The temperature. Unusually warm for February. More akin to a month like August…

South Saskatchewan River

rush-hour-in-saskatoon

August. Sometimes August in Saskatchewan can be downright cool. What’s the saying in Alberta?—after Stampede, it can snow anytime. Saskatchewan’s like that. From when I was about six years old, I spent every August in Saskatoon, where I grew up. And then other times it was blazingly hot. Endless days on my bike. Vinyl banana seat under my ass. Short black hair, slick with sweat and poly-blend longsleeve shirts with buttons and pants. Couldn’t imagine wearing shorts or a t-shirt in those days. Just wasn’t done. Late summer sun. When I think about August and growing up on the prairie, I inevitably think about my attenuation to the land and its culture, the girl who got away, and Folkfest, Saskatoon’s multi-cultural celebration (now in its 30th year).

Let me explain: By the time I was 10 years old, my family had moved to Toronto where I attended the National Ballet School of Canada. I was the first Aboriginal boy to attend that school. Some journalists at the school doing an article on another student saw me run past—a chubby, brown kid—probably sweaty—with jet black hair. It drew their interest.

IMAGE: Indian Boy with Dancing Feet. (Toronto Star, 1977)

We lived in Scarborough, one of Toronto’s suburbs, and every year we travelled home to Saskatoon for the month of August to re-connect ourselves to our families, our friends, neighbours. And to the land. We visited my kokum, my aunties, uncles and my cousins. Trips to Battleford and PA.  Each August, I was reminded that I had a past… and a name… and a community to which I belonged. And. I had Folkfest to look forward to.

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According to its website, the phenomena of Folkfest is described as follows: (buoyantly) “FOR THREE DAYS EVERY YEAR, Saskatoon comes alive with the sights, sounds and tastes of our ethnic heritage. Thousands of volunteers contribute hundreds of hours to ensure your visit to each pavilion is a great experience. Performers of all ages, combined with exquisite artisans, global merchants, talented cooks, and enthusiastic servers, are proud to share their unique culture with you. Join us to become part of the cultural heartbeat of Saskatoon!”

Let me explain: Various communities, such as Ukranian, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Indian and Métis, Phillipino, and Caribbean, among many, would program events, including folkloric dancing, cuisine from their homelands, music and arts and crafts. Folkfest was awesome. I was a teenager, and I was girl-crazy. And those girls at the Indian and Métis pavilion were outta this world. Especially, the pow wow dancers. I looked at them like royalty. I still had a few friends from my days as a kid growing up around Saskatoon’s east end, near Market Mall. I lost touch with most, except for a few—who didn’t hold living in Toronto against me. Like Peter Shuttle. (remembering) Peter Shuttle.

He was cool. He mentioned that the best pavilion was the American one. (disbelief) The Americans had a pavilion!! I had to see that.

And yes… it was the best. They had a Dixieland Jazz band. And they served beer.

MUSIC CUE # 1: Dixieland Jazz (plays softly underneath the following text, until it fades out)

(Aside) I mean the Indian and Métis pavilion could have served beer too, but I think everyone would agree—the optics of that wouldn’t have been—shall we say—ideal. Anyway, Peter knew someone who would serve us. So… there I was with my beer and teenage libido… The actor grabs a plastic cup of beer from the podium’s innards and walks stage right and sits down on 2 empty chairs, downstage R.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

(originally performed @ Performance Works, Feb. 2nd, 2012)

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