Staging Ethnicity (Part Three)

Chief Bromden Will Sampson

Will Sampson (as Bromden, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”)

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.

Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday (Part Three)

I’ll call it “our little cross to bear.”

The actor introduces the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” relating the stories of McMurphy and Bromden trying to lift the marble/ water/ machine device.


The actor in his recounting even attempts to lift the podium. He genuinely struggles, muscles straining, veins bulging, but to no avail. He isn’t “big enough.”

Until the very end, when Nurse Ratchet has the Jack Nicholson character lobotomized, and Bromden realizes he must be free or die in that place… Let’s watch that final scene.

A/ V CUE #1: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (final chapter) plays on the screen.

(As the soaring music from the video clip fades, the actor walks back onto the stage facing the audience. The final image of Bromden, his white hospital pants clearly visible against the backdrop of trees and greenery, running free—directly into the countryside.)

That’s a beautiful image.

But they “staged the native” … in a profoundly subtle way.

(genuinely wondering)  Where was Bromden going?

He was heading into the woods… But somehow that was okay?

That was his place.

In nature.

Does he not have the skills to survive there, the knowledge to learn the land and make a home there?

We don’t question that at all. Imagine if Bromden was a Jew, or a Greek. The audience would be worried about him. (anxious) Uh. Where’s he going? He’s running into the woods… There’s bears! And cougars. How is he going to survive? There was a hidden hand here writing that story, re-writing our images. They “staged” the native, and it’s been happening ever since we were first represented on stages and in media in the North American context.

They are packaging, making static our image, our reality according to a set of prescribed codes. In this film, they “staged the native.”

Dramatis Personae refers to casting, who’s on the stage. Will Sampson, who played Bromden, was an incredible actor, an immense presence on screen. We know. We know he is an Aboriginal man. We have no doubt of his authenticity.

Local colour is a term they use in theatre studies, that refers to the trappings of a specific staging. It includes anything we see on stage, the costumes, the set design, the props. Let us say you want to stage Romeo & Juliet, and you want to set it in Italy, during the renaissance. You may not necessarily want to put that Pepsi machine in the background of the piazza. You don’t want to set up something inconsistent with our belief in the time frame, etcetera, etcetera. So local colour is used to lull you into the belief of a presumed reality. It immerses you in a world of belief. And if the “world” of the Indian looks right—then conversely so must the rest of the “package.”

Language. Language is a very powerful tool. When you hear it—you know. It, like the others, immerses you in a world of authenticity. It immerses you in the reality… of the native. Leading your further down the garden path.

And what about the music. I loved that weird harp sound. And there were also the drums… And flute…

(beat)  I could almost hear the hawk cry.

With that as a backdrop of sound, with the drums and the flute—they painted him. They painted him red, unmistakably, as native. You see there was a “hidden hand” writing, imagining that scene according to its creators’ unquestioned (and unexamined) cultural frame.

This reminds me of something Marlon Brando spoke about a few years ago, when he asked why there were no Jewish stereotypes in early (or subsequent) Hollywood films. Of course Hollywood is replete with all those most egregious and outrageous stereotypes: the wily Chinese, the listless and lazy slave, the drunken or lawless Mexican—and countless more. But there is no equivalent Jewish stereotype. Why, he asked?

Of course he was pilloried for saying it: ‘An anti-semite!’ But nonetheless, he was correct. There are no cruel and demeaning stereotypes of the Jew because the Jewish community—who were fortunate enough to be in positions of control within the Hollywood system—saw no benefit to promulgating them. So they didn’t allow them to be presented. You saw their “hand” by the absence of it. And that’s how critical race theory works.

Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s, in America, from the legal academy. In it, the theory asserts (quoting Ric Knowles “Theatre & Interculturalism”):

• That racism is not aberrational but systemic (or ‘ordinary’)

• That racism serves the interests of a white dominant elite and working class who have little material interest in eradicating it

• That race does not, in scientific terms, exist but is invented, socially constructed, and historically variable—although the material consequences of its invention and application are very real

• That no person has her or his own unitary, essentialist identity; rather, everyone participates in identity construction that cuts across a range of categories including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and ability.

Out of this work, other scholars began to examine the “hidden hand” that was writing representation. From this emerged “whiteness studies.” Yes, it’s a course you can take: Whiteness 101. • Ric Knowles, a noted scholar, adds “that whiteness studies reverses the ethnographic gaze, racialises whiteness, and investigates the invention of ‘normal’.” • It asks, “where whiteness comes from, how it became the ordinary, neutral fallback position from which ‘others’ could be viewed and judged…”

You see, you have to look backward in time—you must look toward yesterday to see the hidden hand that has been writing your narrative… “PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!!!”

From Thine Eyes, Michael Greyeyes

from thine eyes

Photo of Sean Ling, by Cylla von Tiedeman

This is a photo of a recent production from my company, Signal Theatre. This is from thine eyes, which I directed and choreographed.

I have zero interest in staging ethnicity.

Let’s look at the requirements for “staging ethnicity”:

Dramatis Personae: none of my cast were Aboriginal.

Local colour: I assiduously avoided any of the trappings of the native stage—no feathers, no regalia. Modern clothes.

Language: there was little spoken text. It was in fact a dance theatre work—and the text was primarily physical. But again it was not identifiably “native.”

And music. The music included classical work—Mahler, but it was primarily contemporary in its sound. There weren’t any drums or flute present at all.

I was breaking all the “rules.”

But what I am most proud of is that the work was Aboriginal to its core. The creative and dramaturgical team, myself and Yvette Nolan, as writer, were both Aboriginal. The production team and cast was incredibly diverse, but they were all guided by Native Earth Performing Arts (our co-producer) and its 7 core principles: Courage, Generosity, Tolerance, Strength of Character, Patience, Humility, Wisdom. And each section, each moment reflected our knowledge as Aboriginal people and the social realities that affect our communities. The first section explored addiction, the second examined spousal abuse, the third examined how we heal from grief and loss, while the 4th section explored my spiritual belief, taught to me by my parents, of our passage into the next life—as we journey into the land of the dead.

FTE Bones

(The actor becomes more adamant—fiercer—more focused.)

So I stand here before you—before members of my own community—CHARGED WITH THE TASK OF MAPPING A WAY FORWARD!

But there is no way forward—the MAP HAS EXPLODED. We can move forward, backward, up, and down. It does not matter since the paths are too numerous to choose from.

But, at the same time, we must acknowledge our burdens. Too heavy to lift in years past. Too important, too defining to abandon. I just hope that our shoulders are broad enough to carry that past and in so doing… SET IT FREE.

The actor moves to the podium and grasps it at its base—mirroring Bromden from the film clip shown earlier. The actor struggles mightily to gain a grip. He strains but does not relent. He will not give up, until the podium rises. He pauses, then surges it onto his shoulder. Straining. He gains his footing standing with the podium balanced upon him…

**In the ideal setting—the actor would smash the podium through the screen at the back of the stage—letting it rip the fabric, creating a whole through which the actor jumps  (just as Bromden did from Ratchet’s ward)  forcing the audience to stand as he runs away from them, receding into the darkness of backstage.**

(At the PuSh festival in 2012, the stage went to a snap black as the actor began running toward the screen.)


Staging Ethnicity (Part Two)

MG Passchendaele Rife

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.

Staging Ethnicity: A Manifesto for Yesterday  (Part Two)

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.

“Story of the girl who got away.”

Holding the beer in his hand, the actor describes the setting, as he sips his beer.

The American pavilion was a school gymnasium. The band was playing. It was packed. (Aside) I should also mention that at that point in my life, I wasn’t terribly successful at dating. Anyway, the place was packed and then weirdly the crowd parted and there she was across the room. A gorgeous girl. And we looked at each other… and she smiled at me.

So for the rest of the evening, I wandered around exchanging glances with her (the actor walks around the stage, acting out each glance and shy response, sipping his beer)

And then… I went home.

A year goes by.

Next August, I went back to the pavilion, hoping to see her—perhaps do more than merely stare at her this time. But she wasn’t there. I looked everywhere. I was about to give up, when I spotted her… (with utter disbelief and joy) and she was looking for someone. She saw me and smiled again. I smiled back. We smiled at each other all evening… Getting closer and closer to each other and…

Then I went home.

I was so disappointed in myself. I was absolutely determined to speak to her, so I literally couldn’t wait until next year and hoped—hope against hope—she would be there once more. So another year rolled by, and another Folkfest was organized. I was there, beer in hand.

And she saw me.

We were older then, and we gazed at each other more directly. She had a certain look in her eye. Determined, like me, to not let it slip away this time. I walked outside, hoping she would follow me. I was sitting in an area with many chairs. It was nearly empty. I waited only a minute and then she appeared. She saw me, momentarily faltered, and then walked right up to me.


She looked at me and, then indicating the seat next to me, asked if there was anyone sitting there. I smiled back and said no. She turned to sit down and then I noticed at the last possible second that there was a puddle of water on the seat—it had just rained that afternoon—she was about to sit on. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but I blurted out—very loudly. “THERE’S WATER ON THAT SEAT!!” She jumped and looked taken aback. I was so embarrassed by the sheer volume and tone of what I just said, that I became tongue-tied. She smiled awkwardly at me and then walked away from me—clearly disappointed or at least embarrassed by the moment.

I wanted to tell her to come back. If only I had… But I couldn’t speak, couldn’t form any words to apologize or explain my outburst… I ran from the Pavilion in shame.

The actor walks back across the stage to the podium.

What this story tells me is that we—Indian people—certainly have patience and fortitude and long memories. (Aside) By the way, I never did see that girl again—but have wondered about her. In the end, I did work up the nerve to ask a girl to marry me. (beat) And interestingly—she’s an American.

The other part of this story is Folkfest.

Jacqueline Taucar in “(Per) Forming Ourselves and Others in Toronto’s Multicultural Caravan Festival,” analyzes the institutional script of the government of Canada and its policy of multiculturalism and the ways that “ethnicity” is organized and performed for consumption by peoples outside of the originating culture. The government funded multicultural preservation and heritage initiatives, through festivals just like “Caravan” in Toronto, “Mosaic” in Regina and “Folkfest” in Saskatoon, among many others. Diversity was now something to be celebrated and shared. Taucar writes: Rather than suggest that multicultural policy is drafted and then written onto performing bodies, I argue that it is a more complex and interconnected process. Multiculturalism is a physical style, an act that performs and is performed by individuals.

As a famous hawker once said, “You gotta give the customer what they want.” And according to many of these festivals it seems they want spicy food, lederhosen, feathered anything, and spaghetti ‘n meatballs!

“At Caravan, tourists saw a ‘staged ethnicity’ produced for consumption” and the “Homeland imaginary.”  Taucar writes: “The relationship between Caravan tourist and the performance was complex and showed the potential for tourist dollars to shape cultural representations through the economy of supply and demand.” But this was not the only angle by which we see the formation and concretizing of culture. There is another concept in which a culture—which is never static, it is always evolving (unless you’re talking about Ancient Egypt or the Sumerians)… creates its own static identity from the inside!

Let us describe it as the “homeland imaginary.” It is a place, a time, a frozen moment—which may or may not have ever existed. It is imagined collectively and defended fiercely. August. The girl who got away. Culture as commodity. The homeland imaginary.

Which brings me to my so-called expertise on matters of cultural significance. I have a past. But it is checkered, shall we say. Equal parts Spider-Man, Brady Bunch and sitting restlessly on my kokum’s couch, while all the grown ups laughed and talk in Cree. Ballet shoes and Chopin. Watching the fancy dancers walk past me—ever the tourist…

This is my claim to authentic knowledge. It reminds me of a passage from Harlem Duet by Djanet Sears, in which Othello explains to Billie, his first wife, that he and Mona—a white woman—are engaged to be married.

The actor walks forward to the downstage lip of the stage.

Othello: “My culture is not my mother’s culture—the culture of my ancestors. My culture is Wordsworth, Shaw, “Leave it to Beaver,” “Dirty Harry” […] I mean, what does Africa have to do with me. We struttin’ around professing some imaginary connection for a land we don’t know. Never seen. Never gonna see.”

(The actor returns to the podium.) This is not uncommon to hear—as colleagues and friends admit in moments of doubt and insecurity that they are inadequate to the task of representing the larger community. (The actor takes on various notes of apologia, contrition, self-loathing, etc.) I’m not Jewish enough… I don’t speak Hebrew. I never grew up on the rez… I grew up in Burnaby. I’m adopted… I don’t speak Cree. I’m not a real Indian… I’m not Black enough… (The actor looks to his right, as if the person speaking that last line is standing to his side.) Negro, please! What on earth are you talking about!!?! My God. You’re trapped in some bizarre snow globe of identity. You’re caught in the homeland imaginary. Of course you have the right to speak, for yourself, your family, for the larger community if you so desire—because you were born into the role. But you can also—if you so desire—just speak for yourself.

Because there is a double-edged sword to those of us of colour, of differing religion, or gender and orientation, in that when we speak—we automatically speak for the greater community. Ask Spike Lee.


The critics jumped all over his film, Do The Right Thing, which is about the racial tensions in his neighbourhood in Brooklyn. They asked about the absence of drugs in the film—a sin of omission—since crack was exploding across urban America at that time, particularly amongst African American and Hispanic populations. Spike Lee’s supposed mistake was that he did not stage the totality of his ethnicity—all that the dominant white audience expected and perceived of his community. But in fact, it was their framing of his work by their collective perspective that highlighted something crucial in the staging of ethnicity—that audiences expect certain things of us.

Call it what you will.

I’ll call it “our little cross to bear.”

(Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon)