By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In Lake of the Strangers, the solo play that premieres this week at the Backstage Theatre, you’ll meet two Indigenous brothers, 10 and seven, on a mission out in the natural world.
“It’s their last summer adventure together, just before summer ends,” says Hunter Cardinal. “And their goal is to catch a really big fish….” And if it takes sneaking out of the house at 2 a.m. and trekking through the woods to get to the lake, well….
He laughs. “Conflict ensues. You knew it would….”
Cardinal, one of the country’s young generation of accomplished and versatile Indigenous actors, stars in Lake of the Strangers. And he shares the playwriting credit with his big sister Jacquelyn Cardinal for this, his first one-man show.
“It starts in 1973 in Sucker Creek, the First Nations reserve on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake,” where the Cardinal family is from. “There’s an old house there my dad’s dad built.” And that’s the starting point for the brothers on their journey.
“1973 was a really powerful time for our people — and also for my dad and his brother growing up,” says Cardinal, a U of A theatre grad. “We’ve used a lot of our own family history….” It’s a family with deep roots and “a long line of sibling partnerships.”
Cardinal’s dad Lewis Cardinal is a well-known human rights activist, Indigenous educator, and sometime political candidate. His uncle Lorne Cardinal is a stage, film and TV star (Theatre Network plans to name the studio space in their rebuilt Roxy Theatre after him). And Cardinal traces his lineage back through his grandfather ,Cree Elder Don Cardinal, and Don’s writer/ activist brother Harold, back to the signing of Treaty 8 at the turn of the last century.
Now there’s a theatrical sibling collaboration in the family. Cardinal and his sister have been working on Lake of the Strangers for a year. Hunter follows the impetus back to a conversation with “Cree astronomer, Elder and knowledge keeper” Wilfred Buck., “He knows a lot about the myths that have been woven into the stars,” says Cardinal, who took on English theatre’s most storied role when he played Hamlet in Freewill Shakespeare’s Festival hit production of last summer.
“Their purpose is not only to guide us on the long journey, but keep us on course morally as well.” The Cree concept for this starry tapestry of myths is “misewah,” and it’s been a mantra and a method for the young artist. “It’s our connection to all that was, all that is, and all that will be. And it reminds us that those stories exist in a sea of other stories that have yet to be created and shared.. I took that as a call to action!”
Myth-making fascinates him, says Cardinal, heir to a whole tradition of Nehiyaw myths. The idea is “to begin with the seed of a truth, and drive that truth upward through all levels of interconnectedness: your family, your community, your nation, through the natural world to the spiritual world.” The spiral he describes “ends with a story placed in the stars as part of a new constellation.”
The story of Lake of the Strangers began, he says, with a question: “how do we heal?” And “in typical Edmonton fashion a great team has joined us,” distinguished veteran artists like director Ron Jenkins (who’s known Hunter and Jacquelyn since they were little kids), designers Tessa Stamp and Narda McCarroll, singer-songwriter Sarah Pocklington, sound designer Aaron Macri. Cardinal plays multiple characters, a challenge in focus and clarity. “Hamlet was great preparation!” he laughs.
Cardinal is “story director” at Naheyawin, an Indigenous communication agency designed to build community, to help clients find ways of embracing diversity, to invite them to look at the world “through an Indigenous lens,” as he puts it. “Building community to reconfigure the spirit of peace and friendship that’s at the core of our identity as Canadian Indigenous and treaty people…. I’ve been using all of that win my artistic practice as well. Naheyawin has been a lifeline for me as an Indigenous artist”
“As Hamlet, I based my performance heavily on my unique experience as a young indigenous male in exploring Western concepts of masculinity. I used it to frame the deep anger, rage, sadness that Hamlet is going through, his feeling of not being able to live up to certain expectations.”
The spirit of inclusiveness is a theme that Hunter returns to repeatedly. “It’s another way of looking at language,” he says, “to think of it as a way of taking part, singing the song of the world.”
He singles out the Cree word “patawaw” (which Naheyawin uses to title its workshops). “It translates as “welcome’. But what it really means is ‘there is room’.”
Lake of the Strangers
Written by: Jacquelyn Hunter and Hunter Cardinal
Starring: Hunter Cardinal
Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Tuesday through Feb. 2
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca