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Reviewed By Donald D’Haene
The Rez Sisters
By Tomson Highway
Produced by Claire Porter Martin
Directed by Bill Hill
Played by Emilena Cornelius, Kathleen Doxtator, Sharon Doxtator, Amanda French, Courtney Hill, Chesney Sickles-Jarvis, Brandon Doxtator Veronique
Saunders Secondary School
A happening is a performance, event or situation meant to be considered art, usually as performance art.
The lucky 550 in attendance at Saunders on Saturday night experienced a happening – a very memorable one at that.
Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, the Dora Mavor Award-winning best new play of Toronto’s 1986-87 theatre season, was performed by a cast comprised entirely of Saunders First Nations students. The play was presented as part of the Thames Valley District School Board’s Indigenous Arts Festival and all proceeds will go to the Zhawaanong Shelter.
It is believed that this is the first public school presentation of the play in the world.
The Rez Sisters spans a summer in 1986, when seven women (all related by birth or marriage) decide to travel to Toronto to participate in “The Biggest Bingo In The World.” Each character offers the audience a different attitude towards life on the reservation – as well as their individual dreams of escaping it.
Tomson Highway travelled from Manitoba to London for the special event flying from Manitoba to Sudbury and then driving through rain for most of the rest of the way. Considering the results, it was a journey well worth taking!
The fact that non-actor, First Nations students played all the characters enhanced the experience. These kids have never acted before? You’d never know it. All had their individual special moments and each created a distinct character that was believable from the moment of their first appearance until their last.
I loved the poise of the students when they knew they had missed a line or misspoke a word. Especially when I’ve seen an experienced actor break character and say, “I’m sorry!” when missing a line – something that takes you right out of the play.
I will single out two students, but not because they performed better than the others. Rather, they both succeeded in accomplishing something truly extraordinary.
Brandon Doxtator performed in much of the show as symbolic character Nanabush, a bird form, in scenes of joy and in moments of despair. How Doxtator transforms himself from quiet “bird” to his second character, the hilarious, scene-stealing, carnival-barking bingo-caller is truly a feat to behold. The 16-year-old Doxtator has the dynamo combination of charisma and incredible timing.
Emilena Cornelius played Zhaboonigan Peterson, a mentally challenged survivor of sexual abuse. It certainly helps that her character has Highway’s inspired words to deliver, but the scene where Cornelius’s character interacts with Doxtator’s joyful “bird” as she reveals the abuse was quiet brilliance.
I don’t often tear up during plays – even for Oscar-winning performers I’ve witnessed pull out all the stops on stage. Here I teared up at the emotional truth of the moment. The Rez Sisters is filled with universal truths. This is just one.
The set (Bill Hill, constructed by Doug Smith of Kansei Design), music (showcasing the amazing work of Abraham Rudnick) and lighting (Jerrad Davis) designs complimented each other perfectly. Jane Langford’s costumes, Jason Hill’s graphic design and scenic artists Jeremiah Mason and Alannah Arenthals’s work also contributed to creating a true and authentic, yet imaginative, “Rez.”
They all did Highway proud as it was the playwright’s desire to make life on the reservation (or ‘the rez’) seem “cool” and as he has said, “show and celebrate what funky folk Canada’s Indian people really are.”
Stage Wireless’s sound design has become a fixture of many of the productions I attend and they deserve praise for their technical brilliance once again here.
As the students stated time and again in the question and answer part of the evening, the success of this show is due to director Bill Hill and producer Claire Martin’s skill, patience and dedication to the show.
Tomson spoke briefly afterwards. He half-jokingly said, “My favourite parts of the play weren’t there. Something about the language. Maybe it wasn’t appropriate for a school. Or for London, Ontario. London is famous for being pure.”
Of course, certain language had to be edited out of this very adult play, but its heart and soul remained for all to clearly see.
This review first appeared online for The Beat Magazine.