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)


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