By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The stage is dominated by a stunning screen — glowing, translucent, undulating like the prairies, with a graceful open-work lattice (Indigenous Tiffany?). In The Herd the boundary between the present and the past, this world and other dimensions, is porous, as conjured by designer Andy Moro in Tara Beagan’s production.
A buffalo skull has pride of place, front and centre. And The Herd opens with the thunder of a bison herd, doomed by history, raising dust behind the screen. “It begins with the apocalypse. Every buffalo gone,” a destruction with an infinite reverb for Indigenous people.
“We will return,” say the collective ‘buffalo people’ onstage. Kenneth T. Williams’s new play, a Tarragon Theatre partnership finally getting its premiere at the Citadel after two years of COVIDian stops and starts, is all about that return. And it comes at a complicated, high-traffic intersection of cultural, social, political, economic issues for the young chief (Dylan Thomas-Bouchier) of the Buffalo Pound Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.
The extraordinary event at the centre of the action is the birth of twin white buffalo calves on the reserve. Is this the fulfilment — the double-fulfilment — of a sacred Indigenous prophecy about hope and spiritual renewal? Is it the result of genetic manipulation by the veterinarian/geneticist Dr. Brokenhorn (Tai Amy Grauman) who has returned to her home reserve to minister to the purity of the herd and filter out domestic cattle genes?
Prophecies, like miracles, are a tricky call. If they’re created by human calculation — science, for example — are they still prophetic or miraculous? That question is up for grabs amongst the fractious characters of The Herd, and it will be fascinating to learn the reactions of Indigenous commentators.
“You want to know if I made them on purpose,” says brusk Dr. Brokenhorn to persistent Indigenous blogger Coyote Jackson of Red Warrior Media (Todd Houseman), who instantly shows up gathering followers, clicks, and publicity.
Not only is the twin birth an instant tourist attraction, the situation is further knotted by the First Nation’s business contract with the EU, to supply Euro markets with ‘authentic’ Wild West meat. To Aislinn (Cheyenne Scott), the glossy EU business rep who arrives to protect the investment, talking the win-win talk, the twins are a non-pareil marketing opportunity. “Bisonstock,” she brainstorms with herself. “No, Bisonfest, that’s better.”
And heaven knows, the community could use a prosperity boost. As “Baby Pete” Brokenhorn, the band chief and the good doctor’s brother, points out, the reserve has a perennial housing shortage. And they’ve been boiling water for 20 years since they’ve never had the resources to tap the aquifer.
The other character, Sheila (Shyanne Duquette), the aunt of the brother/sister pair and an Elder, is an artist, more measured in her responses. Her creative inspiration apparently comes more directly from the spirit world. If Sheila’s role in The Herd seems more theoretical and less impactful, it’s partly because her encounters with other characters are way less audible (I was in row D).
The birth, whether sign from the spirit world or scientific achievement, creates a frenzy of excitement and stresses. “We don’t need more attention,” snaps Dr. Brokenhorn as the crowd of on-lookers escalates alarmingly into a festive camp-out (we see their campfires flicker through the screen and hear their party din). The chief, in Thomas-Bouchier’s appealing performance, is up against it, trying to untangle the knot of contradictory factors.
Williams’ work, as you’ll see in The Herd, is infused with a sense of humour, however dark the subject matter. Excellent as the increasingly harried and exasperated doctor, Grauman brings her strong, edgy speaking voice to bear as she stomps through her world, not answering calls, cutting through chatter abruptly — “what are you doing here?” — when self-serving interests camouflage themselves in jargon.
The play’s most comic character, never without his blogger’s tripod and a selection of warrior poses, is Coyote Jackson, the self-styled “Indigenizer of the net.” Houseman is amusing as the social media star and activist whose Indigenous cred comes under scrutiny in the play. “Very Oka 1990s,” notes the formidable Dr. Brokenhorn eyeing his get-up. Is Colin Jackson of Etobicoke a Pretendian? He’s desperate to make his case. “I’m totally legit!”
Thorny questions of cultural and spiritual identity, both animal and human, are everywhere in The Herd. There is perhaps a surfeit of entrances and exits in the production (and the Shoctor is a big stage). But once onstage the people we meet there argue those questions, weigh the spiritual and cultural price of them, justify their responses, air their doubts. And that leaves them, and us, with a lot to think about.
Meet playwright Kenneth T. Williams in the 12thnight PREVIEW here.
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-Boucher
Running: through April 24
Tickets: citadeltheatre.com, 780-425-1820