How does it feel to have your face misrepresented? Whiteface, the play and now the film

Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cardona in Whiteface. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

At the outset of Whiteface, a smug chalky-faced couple chat over dinner about their culinary and entertainment options.“Here we go,” sighs the woman, overcome with ennui and exasperation. “We’re always the monsters….” The man rolls his eyes. “I know, we’re always being attacked by reverse racism.”

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In the boldly configured 2018 play by, and starring, Lady Vanessa Cardona and Todd Houseman, jaded comes in layers — and masks — of white. Now, Whiteface — by Houseman, who’s Indigenous, and Cardona, a Colombian refugee — is a film. Artful and beautifully designed in light and sound, it’s the work of Everett Sokol, an award-winning Indigenous film director/ writer/ producer/ theatre artist whose startling breadth of skills puts him in a highly selective subset of creatives.

As Houseman explains — from Montreal where’s he’s a production away from graduating as an actor at the National Theatre School —  Whiteface began life as an experimental 15-minute performance at Mile Zero’s Dirt Buffet Cabaret. “And we started gradually expanding it, adding things here and there, trying new things” as the show made its way to from Winnipeg to the Edmonton Fringe in 2018, and last year to the the Poetic Arts Festival in Saskatoon.

Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cardona in White. Photo supplied.

The imaged that gripped them from the start, Houseman says, “the idea of Indigenous actors painted in whiteface.… We wanted to show people the real price of cultural appropriation, how it feels to see your face misrepresented. A very conscious stereotyping of the White Face to tell this story of cultural appropriation.” In the course of Whiteface he and Cardona wrestle, in powerful choregraphed sequences, with layers of grotesque, white-faced masks, a tangible demonstration of how hard it is to peel off a distorted stereotype.   

Lady Vanessa Cardona in Whiteface. Photo supplied.

Whiteface directs its zingers at white entitlement, the insatiable appetite to take over other cultural identities, to claim credit for reconciliation or inclusivity. Houseman and Cardona’s “response to the legacy of cultural appropriation” especially targeted Westerns, “which are such a huge part of our narrative history,” as the former points out. The vast archive of Westerns is a veritable repository of Max Factor tan makeup: Indigenous characters played by white people are everywhere. Whiteface hones its satirical edge on that: “Indigenous actors playing white actors playing Indigenous actors.” 

Cardona’s experience with stereotyping as an immigrant had similar resonances.  “A lot of the ideas are universal to people of colour,” says Houseman of “the feeling of seeing something that is yours taken from you and misrepresented…. We wanted to offer people a broad perspective.” After all, there’s an assortment of racisms in North America, as he points out, “xenophobic, or class-based, or Indigenous racism which is a real part of this country….”

When Sokol caught Whiteface at the Edmonton Fringe, he saw a project admirably suited to his training in both theatre (at Grant MacEwan) and film (at Red Deer College). “I’d been keeping my eye open for a way to archive theatre in a film data base, that still complements it as theatre.”

He was attracted both to the inherent stylized theatricality of the show, and to its cultural thrust. “This is a show that has a lot of very absurd elements, with masks and (choreographed) dance, and a very important, relevant discussion point. And it’s done in a way that’s so bold and so confident!”

Todd Houseman in Whiteface. Photo suppied.

The trio were selected by Telus’s Storyhive initiative, and set about adapting the play for the screen. And as soon as the virus pipes down, Whiteface will be on the film festival circuit that includes Dreamspeakers, originally slated for the end of April and now on indefinite hold. And Sokol has plans for a feature-length film of Whiteface that will restore parts of the play that were cut for the short film version you’ll see on his website, and on YouTube.

“We didn’t know how audiences would receive it,” says Houseman of the satirical layers of white stereotypes, along with an indictment of white complacency that we’re living in times of reconciliation, of post-colonial post-racist harmony. “We built in pauses, gaps without dialogue, to be able to listen to the audience.” There have been objections, and the odd walk-out — and he and Cardona are far from amazed. 

What kinds of backlash have they encountered? “This is racist!” Houseman has heard, along with the thought that it’s wrong to marginalize white people. “Actually, it’s insecurity, it’s not wanting to be treated themselves the way their arguments treat people of colour.” 

Look for Whiteface at everettsokol.com/whiteface.

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