By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Strangers on a train. Imagine the scene (with special thanks to the ETS): a young woman on the LRT, heading towards class at the university, notices another young woman on the LRT. There’s just something about her, something familiar.
“I’m a bit of a blunt person,” laughs 23-year-old Shyanne Duquette, an exuberant voice on the phone from Toronto, where she’s in the cast of Kenneth T. Williams’ The Herd at Tarragon Theatre. “So I walked over and went ‘hey, is your dad my dad?’. And that’s how she met her sister. “Sometimes you just know,” she says simply.
In the real-life encounter Duquette not only found a sister, but also the inspiration for her first play. Omisimawiw, Cree for “elder sister,” breathes its first public air Saturday at Nextfest on the Nancy Power stage at the Roxy Theatre. When Duquette, who had been in Williams’ classes at the U of A in the course of getting a B.A. in drama, told him the story, “he said ‘that’s a play in itself’.” Nextfest artistic director Ellen Chorley had much the same reaction: “It’s got to be a play!”
“I grew up with my mom and two sisters from my mom,” explains Edmonton-born and -raised Duquette, whose mother is white ( and step-father Indigenous). Gradually, “I came to hear of many more siblings from my (Indigenous) father … in total 15.” She “never really knew” that father, but “I’ve always had a bit of an awareness that there are more of me out there,” as she puts it in her engaging way.
“As soon as I met her,” says Duquette of her fateful LRT encounter with her sister, “it lit everything on fire in terms of Indigenous identity and my questions around that…. It brought up a lot of emotions.” And “various nuances” about her father find their way into Omisimawiw. For one thing he never signed her sister’s birth certificate, which created endless issues when it came to applying for First Nations status.
“It’s exhausting,” says Duquette, “especially after your culture’s been ripped away from you, and the struggle to regain it is (made) so difficult.” As she points out, “when you apply for a passport, a (federal) legal document, the turnaround is, what, two weeks. Applying for status (also a federal legal document) can take years…. I touch on that a bit in the play.”
On the subject of Omisimawiw, “I almost think I should have sat on it a bit longer before I presented it to the public. But this is a great opportunity. And it’s a story that needs to be told…. I’m really trying to communicate with this play the idea that you can connect to your culture without connecting to family members that can cause harm out trauma to you…. “
As she describes it, Omisimawiw is a play that explores “questions of nature vs nurture, self-determination,” what family means, feelings of cultural disconnection. The family dynamic Duquette taps for her play s nothing if not complicated.
“I grew up with the nickname Pocahontas, of course,” she says with a shrug in her voice. “When I was younger I had friends whose families really liked me … because I was quiet and, you know, more assimilated, though they wouldn’t quite vocalize it like that.” Her stepdad’s father was a victim of residential schooling. “So that’s kind of a touchy topic.” Now that she’s written her first play, “I think there are many more plays within me.… I’m lucky that (as a culture) we’re at the (start) of wanting to hear these stories.”
There’s a wealth of material to draw on, as Duquette points out. Writing it has been important to her. “It’s a big thing, it’s re-affirmed who I am, that my experience as a Cree woman is valid.” And Omisimawiw is just the start for her. “Even non-Indigenous people can connect to not feeling you belong, now knowing where you’re from, not knowing where you’re going.”
As for her sister Majada, “I now have a relationship with her because of my directness,” Duquette laughs. “She was a little startled, yes. But we’ve met up since and had a few conversations….” And other siblings have reached out too.” She pauses. “It’s crazy how similar people can become without knowing each other.”
Meanwhile The Herd, which played the Citadel in March, has another couple of weeks to run at Tarragon (minus the COVID break of this past week). Duquette had landed a gig as apprentice director of Tara Beagan’s production when she suddenly found herself in the cast and onstage at the Citadel. “I didn’t expect it,” she says with cheerful modesty of her sudden initiation into acting, “but it’s great. I’ve never really trained as an actor too specifically…. I feel more comfortable offstage.”
When The Herd closes Omisimawiw will get a workshop as part of Tarragon’s Young Playwrights Unit. So Duquette she won’t be able to be in Edmonton for Nextfest. But she’s eager to find out “what really resonates with audiences, with the community. I can’t wait to see what people think.”
Edmonton is a place Duquette loves. “As I get older I’m thinking about staying,” she says. “I’m getting great opportunities to create. And I’m very interested in continuing to revitalize the Edmonton scene…. I often think about where I would be if I didn’t have theatre, and hadn’t been introduced to it at a young age.” Her entry point as a kid was improv, in junior high and then high school. And acting followed, though “I was never able to really sink my teeth into it,” till The Herd.
Theatre and theatre people have inspired her, she says, “and I’d like to be that kind of figure to some people if possible some day.”
At the invitation of Josh Languedoc, the Fringe’s director of Indigenous strategic planning, Omisimawiw will get “a partial performance” in the Fringe’s Indigenous programming this summer. Duquette is thinking of directing it. And it will be part of RISER Edmonton’s 2023 lineup too.
And as for the journey of discovery the play is about, for Duquette it’s not finished yet. Not by a long shot. “I’m still on that journey of identity…. I don’t really think the action of this play is done in my life.”
Omisimawiw runs at Nextfest 2022 Saturday, plus June 7, 9, and 11. Times and tickets: nextfest.ca.