VICTORIA, B.C. – Every seat was taken in the Belfry Theatre October 7th for a performance of the drama, The Rez Sisters. All the actors were First Nation women and one man whose virtuoso performances were greeted with a standing ovation.
The audience was invited to join a post-performance discussion of the play and thirty or so people, including First Nation tribal members, attended, sharing their insights, hailing the play for exposing racist oppression of the native peoples of Canada. We had taken the Coho ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Port Angeles to see the performance at an old converted church in the Fernwood neighborhood of Victoria.
The play by Canada’s acclaimed First Nation playwright, Tomson Highway, tells the story of seven First Nation women, all sisters or sisters-in-law, living on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario. Plagued with poverty, illness, and violence, the women are transfixed by the idea of traveling to Toronto to join in the “Biggest Bingo in the World,” convinced that winning the half million-dollar jackpot will solve their problems.
Each woman has her own story. One has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. One, a child-like mentally challenged girl, has been raped. Pelajia Patchnose, played by the celebrated Tantoo Cardinal (Smoke Signals, Dances with Wolves), opens the play. Standing on the roof holding a hammer she proclaims that her dream is to finish re-roofing her house, creating a warm place to live. She speaks of prizes that will benefit her tribe, benefit all people, like paved roads. She plays a leading role throughout the play, more grounded in reality by her tools.
Throughout, Nanabush, a jokester dressed as a bird, dances around the women. Played by Waawaate Fobister, he is a spirit from the netherworld who gently mocks their dreams.
Neither the provincial government nor the tribal council will fund their road trip, so they raise the money by house cleaning, window washing, babysitting – all acted out with great enthusiasm onstage. They add up their earnings. They are a couple of hundred dollars short.
Emily Dictionary, dressed in her motorcycle togs, decides to sing at a local saloon together with Annie Cook, played by Lisa C. Ravenbergen. They sing so well that they earn more than enough to pay for the journey. Their western-style ballad is one of the high points of the play. Emily, played by Reneltta Arluk, is also the driver of the vehicle that careens its way south to Toronto. She is full of energy and wit, undefeated by the trials and tribulations of life. I wanted her to sing another song.
They arrive at the Biggest Bingo. The master for the game is Nanabush now dressed in flamboyant satin, who loudly proclaims the biggest jackpot in the world. Each person in the audience has a bingo sheet tucked in their program. The actors all freeze. The master invites us all to play. A woman sitting in front of us won. “Bingo!” she cried. The master told her she could pick up her jackpot at the front office.
Then the actors resumed playing Bingo, furiously.
But the lottery, a plastic bubble lit up with twinkling lights, lottery balls bouncing, sinks down into the stage and is gone. None of the women has won. Marie Adele Starblanket, the cancer victim (played by Tasha Faye Evans) has a convulsive coughing fit. She stands, runs upstage. The bingo master lifts her as if to carry her into the afterlife. She falls into the pit and is dead. The bingo game is over.
In an epilogue back home at the reserve, Pelajia Patchnose tells the audience that the women will keep on living, struggling for decency and happiness.
Life is a lottery. Everyone must play. But the “free market” rigs the game so the casino always wins. Tomson Highway wrote the play 28 years ago. It rings as true today as when he wrote it in 1986. The Belfry Theatre production of this play ends October 19. It has played to a full house. In Canada and the United States, there is a hunger for honest truth-telling like The Rez Sisters. I hope the producers take it on the road and it makes its way south of the Canadian border.
Photo: Rez Sisters on their way to the Biggest Bingo in the World, Belfry Theatre website.