The most significant souvenir that members of the Mummers Troupe of Newfoundland brought home from a recent excursion to Montreal was a book of Newfie jokes—in French. To the eight youthful members of the Mummers’ cast, the book proved that even another minority culture enjoys the great national game of putting down Newfoundland. It’s an awareness that travels with them on an otherwise exuberant mini-bus tour across Canada with their new play What’s That Got To Do With The Price Of Fish?
The play, a series of sketches organized into a minstrel-show format, was commissioned by Oxfam St. John’s and originated with a visit by Mummers’ director Chris Brookes to a UN conference on the economics of the Third World. As he listened, Brookes quickly realized that the conference catchphrases of Care-Package imperialism and resource rip-off could just as easily be applied to his native Newfoundland. The play that grew out of this insight is an acid and funny look at Newfoundland as Canada’s Bangladesh. Lively jangling tunes combine with brutal humor and drop like rocks on tender toes. A mining sketch contains a song about “the ache in my heart and the dust in my lungs” and another declares “we’ve been bought, we’ve been sold, we’ve been left out in the cold and that’s the biggest Newfie joke that anybody’s ever told.”
Since its beginning in 1972, the Mummers Troupe has been involved in a guerrilla war of cultures. Their first production, The Coronation Of Cecil B. DeMille, was made to support a projectionists’ strike against St. John’s movie houses; Gros Mourne protested the resettlement of several communities for the sake of a National Park. “We’re being stampeded into brown refrigerators, color TVS, new Chevrolets, credit cards and a dump-thefishery attitude,” says Brookes, “without intelligent decisions between what has to be thrown out and what we want to keep.” The name Mummers is itself part of the troupe’s concern with preservation. An ancient Newfoundland custom in which small groups of masked actors went from door to door performing a ritualized play, mummery had largely died out when the Mummers revived it during Christmas in 1972. Since then the Mummers have existed on subsistence level wages of about $100 a week and continued to advocate what Brookes calls “useful” theatre. Basic to this play-making is a live-in approach.
The Mummers take up residence in a community, absorb the tones, manners and stories of its people and charge themselves with the issues of the moment. What results is theatre with direct social relevance.
The formula has translated well off the island. Since opening night on April 1 in Sydney, Nova Scotia, audiences for The Price Of Fish in Halifax, Fredericton, Charlottetown and Toronto have responded with standing ovations. Appropriately the last show on May 22 will be on another island tip of Canada—in the Belfrey theatre in Victoria. But despite the play’s popularity, Brookes says the troupe will consider it a success only if it has confronted audiences with the harsh truth: “Them’s that got shall get, them’s that not shall lose.” SANDRA SOUCHOTTE
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