THEATRE

Native grace

An Indian reserve struggles for salvation

John Bemrose April 29 1991
THEATRE

Native grace

An Indian reserve struggles for salvation

John Bemrose April 29 1991

Native grace

THEATRE

An Indian reserve struggles for salvation

DRY LIPS 0UGHTA MOVE TO KAPUSKASING By Tomson Highway Directed by Larry Lewis

Last summer, as armed Mohawks stood guard at their barricades in Oka, Que., a new image of Canada’s native people forced itself on the national consciousness. But such defiance is only one aspect of the current Indian struggle for greater self-determination. Early this month at

Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, native people staged a different kind of event—the production of Tomson Highway’s award-winning play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. The bitter tragicomedy first appeared at the city’s Theatre Passe Muraille two years ago. But its remounting at the plush Royal Alex—where it is the first Canadian play in eight years—marks a special triumph for an Indian cultural community determined to raise the profile of its concerns and its achievements.

Pride in those achievements was in evidence at the theatre earlier this month as native people in formal evening attire mingled under the television lights with the well-to-do opening-night crowd. In part, the celebrity atmosphere was a carryover from last month’s Academy Awards show when one of the stars of Dry Lips, Toronto actor Graham Greene,

was an Oscar nominee for his role in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. The glitter contrasted starkly with the events portrayed onstage. For all its broad humor, Highway’s vision of life on Wasaychigan Hill, a fictional Manitoulin Island reserve, is as bleak as the morning after a week-long binge. Like so many native communities, Wasaychigan Hill is destroying itself in a black orgy of substance abuse and violence. Only its frayed links to traditional values and a kind of gamy courage hold it back from complete disintegration.

Highway’s earlier hit play, The Rez Sisters, focused on Wasaychigan Hill’s women, who made an epic comedy of their journey to a bigcity bingo game. In Dry Lips, Highway turns his attention to the men. They are a pathetic if oddly endearing lot. Of the seven native males in the play, five are drunks, fools or both. The remaining two, Dickie Bird Halked (Kennetch Charlette) and Simon Starblanket (Dwayne Manitowabi), are youths struggling to escape the community’s collective nightmare. But Simon is killed in a pointless accident, while Dickie Bird’s inner demons—he has been left speechless by a mysterious childhood trauma—drive him to commit a brutal rape.

All the men of Wasaychigan Hill are caught in a vortex of angry passivity. Even the authority figure, Big Joey (Ben Cardinal), is a bully obsessed with past memories. By contrast, the

women of the reserve—who appear mostly through the eyes of the men—positively brim with creativity and initiative. That has helped inspire a deep strain of misogyny. When Big Joey is pressed to explain why he stands by passively during Dickie Bird’s attack on Simon Starblanket’s fiancée, Patsy Pegahmagahbow (Doris Linklater), he blurts out that he hates all women for taking power away from the men.

Fortunately, Highway, a Cree bom 39 years ago in Brochet, Man., leavens Wasaychigan’s anguish with humor of a very high order. The chief vehicle of the play’s comedy is a loquacious bootlegger named Pierre St. Pierre, played by Greene. The gap-toothed, jut-jawed drunk is the utter antithesis of dignity: he shamelessly cadges beer and chugalugs it a bottle at a time. Greene is simply brilliant in the role. When he appears as the referee for an allwomen’s hockey game, his physical comedy has the stumbling insouciance of Buster Keaton. St. Pierre is also, in his way, the poet of the reserve, as he sums up with wonderful exaggeration and malapropisms the exploits of the women hockey players. His repeated recitation of their outlandish names, including Big Bummed Pegahmagahbow and Dry Lips Manatawagan, grows more deliciously funny every time.

While all the comic sections of the production have an engaging buoyancy, a certain heaviness creeps in elsewhere. Much of the play concerns Dickie Bird’s search to discover his true father and understand the causes of his dumbness. It is a tedious quest, unable to bear the dramatic importance that Highway places on it. Part of the problem is Charlette’s toofrenetic performance. Even more critically, Highway has not found a language adequate to his characters’ rage and pain. That makes the climactic rape scene—which involves the brutal use of a crucifix—a bloody but emotionally unaffecting affair.

The result of those failures is that Dry Lips breaks in half between beguiling comedy and less effective tragedy. Still, much of the production soars above that split, including Carlos del Junco’s haunting accompaniment on the blues harp. Also successful is the use of the Ojibwa trickster figure, Nanabush (Linklater), who hovers like Puck in the background, an invisible influence on the characters. In one scene, she waggles an enormous pair of false buttocks and causes the reserve’s baker, Zachary (Gary Farmer), to break into a chorus— he has no idea why—of Hot Cross Buns.

The drama’s earthiness and gallows humor are important gifts from native people to a society that has all too often lost sight of such qualities. Dry Lips is also a warning. Wasaychigan Hill’s predicament can be seen as being symbolic of the larger society that surrounds it—a society that may itself be bent on selfdestruction in more subtle or socially acceptable ways. In that sense, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is more than just a play about conditions on Canada’s Indian reserves. It is a reminder that when the cultural underpinnings of a society crumble, chaos is not far behind.

JOHN BEMROSE