By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Herd, premiering this week at the Citadel, is powered by the rarest of rare events: the birth of twin white buffalo calves on a First Nations ranch. It comes attached to a sacred Indigenous prophecy about hope that reverberates through First Nations peoples across the continent.
But that prophecy is not the story Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams is telling, as he explains. “It’s what happens afterwards, the excitement, the stresses within the First Nations world….” He laughs, “As they say, no one fights like family!”
One of the country’s star playwrights, Williams, expansive and exuberant in conversation, traces his inspiration for The Herd back to “a short story that didn’t go anywhere” and a proposal from Richard Rose, then the artistic director of Tarragon Theatre. “He had an idea for an Indigenous adaptation of (Ibsen’s) An Enemy of the People,” a perennially topical, much adapted 1882 play that digs into the tensions in a spa town unleashed by a water quality whistle-blower doctor. “Richard was thinking resource extraction and pipelines, and all that…. But I wanted it to be internally Indigenous.”
Adaptations can turn into equivalency checklists of plugging this character into that character, “and you know what’s gonna happen.” Instead Williams “pitched a play set on a reserve, with the same issues that come up in An Enemy of the People, economic and cultural, but adding spiritual and political issues.”
“And so, six years later, here we are!” declares Williams, who became the first Indigenous grad of the U of A’s master’s playwriting program in 1992. Like so much theatre in the pandemical age, The Herd, a Tarragon commission, had a circuitous route to opening night: three times it was scheduled to go up, three times it didn’t. After its premiere at the Citadel, the production directed by Tara Beagan, an award-winning Indigenous playwright herself (Deer Woman), will run at Tarragon, the National Arts Centre Indigenous theatre, and Persephone in Saskatoon.
The cultural stakes underpinning The Herd are high, as Williams explains. “Buffalo are so crucial to the cultural life of the plains people. Even saying it sounds like I’m not giving it enough importance… It was overwhelming, the destruction of the buffalo nearly drove all our people to extinction too. So the recovery of buffalo is huge: not just symbolic, it’s visceral, we feel the physicality of it. It’s central to who we are.”
Which brings Williams to the issue of genetics and genetic purity. The play’s veterinarian character has been hired to look after and “purify” the bison herd, “to weed out the domestic cattle genes.” And pure bison herds cannot be sold commercially. But in the quest for community prosperity, the reserve has a sales contract abroad. Then come the twin white bison calves.
That kind of tension, cultural vs. economic, finds its way into claims of Indigenous identity and questions of legitimacy, one of the hot issues of the current age. Williams mentions three contentious cases — University of Saskatchewan research chair Carrie Bourassa, the filmmaker Michelle Latimer, the author Joseph Boyden — whose claims to Indigeneity have been challenged. And during his 15 years as a journalist, including six years reporting for APTN, Williams has done investigative stories of that ilk, wannabes including the fascinating case of one Charlie Smoke, a secret American in love with the Indigenous warrior fantasy, who faked a Canadian Mohawk identity.
“For me, the question is always the drama,” says Williams. “Once you get to the answer, the drama is done.”
Like his new play, Williams himself, originally from the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, took a zigzag route to the stage, as he points out cheerfully. “It’s like separating paint when you’ve already dropped five cans of it together.”
The family moved to Edmonton when Williams was 12, and he went to Harry Ainley High School here. “I did not take drama. I didn’t think theatre was cool; I thought it was stupid.” At the U of A, where he’s now an assistant professor in the drama department, he gravitated first toward creative writing. But it was only when Williams found himself in a playwriting class “I suddenly found a style of writing that made perfect sense to me…. I could write for the stage; my imagination opened up suddenly; it cracked open my brain.”
“I convinced the drama department to let me into the (masters playwriting program) through sheer force of will,” he laughs. His classmate? Fellow playwright and former Workshop West artistic director Vern Thiessen.
“I was watching theatre; I was really getting into it, and writing theatre,” he recalls. But he attributes the “rich learning moment” that really changed the course of a career-in-progress to playwright Brad Fraser, enlisted by the drama department to review Williams’s second-year show. “He very bluntly, very clearly asked me ‘what have you done? have you acted? directed?’ Then he told me about my play … and none of it was very good.”
Williams spent the next few years, before a play of his was actually produced, gathering practical theatre experience, taking workshops, acting in Fringe shows. He did freelance journalism. He played in a rock band. “Feed The Dog was pretty popular in Edmonton for a while. We called it ‘redneck reggae’, a Neil Young/ Bob Marley cross sped up.” And he moved to Toronto. “I really found what I was missing as a writer of theatre…. Learning the mechanics of theatre made me a better writer, a more inventive writer.”
Thunderstick, the raucous story of two high-contrast cousins — one a dissolute hell-raiser and the other a frontline wartime photographer, both affected by the toxic residue from residential schools — got its first production in 2001 in Saskatchewan. “It did not go well in Toronto,” he says cheerfully. “In fact, it was universally hated.”
It was not until the production Edmonton audiences saw at Theatre Network in 2010 — starring Claude Lauzon of Royal Canadian Air Farce and Corner Gas star Lorne Cardinal who switched roles every performance — that Thunderstick caught on. “They turned it into their own show.” It’s since been produced across the country, and remains popular. It’s currently being translated into French.
“And because of that, people were demanding other plays,” Williams says. “That’s why Bannock Republic (a sequel to Thunderstick) got made, Cafe Daughter (seen at Workshop West here in 2015) got commissioned, Gordon Winter got made.” His career gained momentum; Williams calls it “Diary of a Late Bloomer.”
And now The Herd. He credits artistic directors across the country, who “hung on to it” in challenging times. And “the biggest shout-out to Lorne Cardinal,” says Williams of the actor who is by nature, “a supporter, a builder, someone who helps people’s careers, always on that side of things.”
Most of Williams’ characters are Indigenous, and his writing attacks serious complex subjects with a signature sense of humour. “The Indigenous audience is the audience I have to serve first,” he says. “I want them to see a fun different aspect of themselves…. And they’re my bullshit meter. It has to be authentic to them and to say something to them first. I’m happy that other people can see something valuable in my work, but it has to be first and foremost for them.”
These days, he’s noticed that more Indigenous people than ever before are finding their way into theatres, as audiences and now, increasingly, as young artists. “Theatre companies are increasingly seeing the value in the stories…. And that will (increase) now we have more content,” he thinks.
Before the pandemic Williams and his friend Drew Hayden Taylor (whose Cottagers and Indians recently closed at Shadow Theatre) talked about the growth of the Indigenous theatre scene of the last 15 years. “Before, you and I could sit with five other people in the Indigenous theatre community,” Williams said. “And we’d know who was doing what, who was in what, who was writing what…. You can’t do that now. And that’s a good thing.”
There’s natural rapport between storytelling and live theatre. “There’s a real person in front of you; that’s where the power exists,” as Williams says. “I’ve seen amazing theatre that burns within me years later…. There’s no visual record, no DVD. And if there were, it wouldn’t be the same experience anyway.”
“Theatre is still the most powerful way to tell stories.”
Theatre: Citadel Theatre in association with Tarragon Theatre and National Arts Centre Indigenous Theatre
Written by: Kenneth T. Williams
Directed by: Tara Beagan
Starring: Tai Amy Grauman, Todd Houseman, Cheyenne Scott, Shyanne Duquette, Dylan Thomas-Bouchier
Running: through April 24
Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820