ERNESTINE SHUSWAP GETS HER TROUT
Back in the late 1980s when Tomson Highway first exploded onto the scene, he held out the promise of a cycle of plays about First Nations life in Canada. The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing were to be the first of seven linked plays about the rez, sharing a single cast of characters. Sadly, that never happened. The third play in the cycle, Rose, a large-scale musical, never got a professional production, and Highway began complaining that he couldn’t make a living as a playwright in this country. He turned instead to writing fiction, achieving immediate success with Kiss of the Fur Queen.
Anyone who knows Rez Sisters and Dry Lips knows what an extraordinary dramatist Highway can be. Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout just confirms his remarkable talent and insight, and the loss Canadian theatre has suffered by his withdrawal from it.
Ernestine was commissioned by the Secwepemc Cultural Educational Society and Western Canada Theatre of Kamloops in 2004 to tell the story of Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier’s visit to Kamloops in 1910, where he received a deputation of local Native chiefs who offered him an eloquent account of their concerns and mistreatment. Highway tells the story through four local women of the Shuswap, Okanagan, and Thompson nations. In typical Highway fashion it’s funny, bitter, playful, tragic, musical, and sublimely theatrical. Lorne Cardinal (late of Corner Gas) directs a note-perfect Firehall production, with acting that’s often sublime.
The backdrop of Craig Alfredson’s set is a screen on which are projected evocative historical photographs of turn-of-the-century Kamloops and its Native people. In the foreground is a semi-circular platform, which keeps the action flowing around a central emptiness, occupied by giggly young Delilah Rose Laughing Bird (Kimberly Harvey, a star in the making), who sews the tablecloths to be used at the banquet that night for the Great Big Kahoona of Canada, as the women call Laurier. Delilah also drives the dramatic subplot: she’s married to and pregnant by a white man, which is bad enough in her community, but making things worse is the fact that her father-in-law is the civil servant behind a series of new laws depriving the Indians of their fishing rights, their grazing rights, their trapping rights, and other freedoms basic to their culture and economy.
The other women are concerned mostly with the Big Kahoona’s visit. Gossipy Isabel Okanagan (very funny Tracey Nepinak) has to bake 624 saskatoon-berry pies. Annabelle Thompson (the fiery Quelemia Sparrow) worries about baking and stuffing enough beaver to go around. And Ernestine Shuswap (a slyly brilliant Tantoo Cardinal) wonders when her husband will bring her the great trout she’ll cook to feed the assembled multitudes. They comically tease each other and argue, worrying too about the fishing prohibition and where the cow will get its next meal. The second act becomes a kind of fugue, punctuated by the women’s reading of their men’s complaints to Laurier, an eloquent litany reminiscent of Chief Dan George’s Centennial speech of 1967, lamenting Canada’s triumph as his people’s tragedy.
Highway takes quite a few Trickster turns, never missing an opportunity for a beaver joke and freely sprinkling anachronisms throughout the play: the long list of aboriginal languages Isabel claims her husband can speak includes Klingon. The ending contains a violent death but it’s balanced by the transcendent image of the Thompson River as a wedding veil, reinforced in a beautiful bit of staging with help from Rebekah Johnson’s shimmering lights.
Ernestine Shuswap is Canadian history as absurd comedy, lyrical lament, and transformational tragedy, and Highway’s is a voice unlike any other playwright’s in the world.