A cul­tural reap­pro­pri­a­tion of cen­tury-old ‘Indian’ opera

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - J. KELLY NESTRUCK

Métis play­wright’s new play takes real-life Creek mezzo-so­prano out of paren­the­ses

I Call My­self Princess AKI THE­ATRE I N THE DANIELS SPEC­TRUM, TORONTO

Writ­ten by Jani Lau­zon Di­rected by Mar­jorie Chan Star­ring Court­ney Ch’ng Lan­caster, Howard Davis, Richard Green­blatt, Mar­ion Newman, Aaron Wells Pa­per Ca­noe Projects and Ca­hoot The­atre in as­so­ci­a­tion with Na­tive Earth Per­form­ing Arts ★★★

ICall My­self Princess, Jani Lau­zon’s en­gag­ing new play with an opera in­side of it, lets us lis­ten closely to a fas­ci­nat­ing case of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion from a cen­tury ago.

In 1918, the Metropoli­tan Opera in New York pre­miered a new work called Shanewis, or The Robin Woman, about a young na­tiveAmer­i­can opera singer who ends up part of an in­ter­ra­cial love tri­an­gle. Its cred­ited cre­ators were two white artists: com­poser Wake­field Cad­man, an ex­pert on “Indian mu­sic” (and clos­eted gay man), and lyri­cist Nelle Eber­hart, who be­came the first fe­male li­bret­tist to have work pre­miere at the Met.

In the pub­lished score, how­ever, you’ll find this one sen­tence at the bot­tom of the plot synopsis, in paren­the­ses: “The sketch of the story was given by Tsian­ina Red­feather of the Creek tribe.” Shanewis was, in fact, loosely based on the na­tive-Amer­i­can mezzo-so­prano Red­feather’s own bi­og­ra­phy – and she col­lab­o­rated closely with Cad­man and Eber­hart on its cre­ation.

While she chose not to per­form in it in New York (where it played two con­sec­u­tive Met sea­sons), she did take on the lead role when it was per­formed at the Hol­ly­wood Bowl in 1926.

With I Call My­self Princess, Lau­zon – a Métis mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary artist lately known from act­ing at the Shaw Fes­ti­val and the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val – aims to take Red-

feather and other un­cred­ited In­dige­nous col­lab­o­ra­tors of early 20th-cen­tury mu­sic out of those paren­the­ses. There’s a fram­ing de­vice that al­lows for our mod­ern con­cept of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion to be broached directly, rather than im­plied.

In the present day, Wil­liam Morin (Aaron Wells), a Métis tenor from Win­nipeg, is study­ing in Toronto on an In­dige­nous schol­ar­ship when he is asked to per­form in Shanewis. Far away from his emo­tional an­chor, his boyfriend Alex (Howard Davis), Morin be­comes ob­sessed and trou­bled by the opera and Red­feather’s long artis­tic re­la­tion­ship with Cad­man, who con­sid­ered him­self an “ide­al­izer” who trans­formed the songs of var­i­ous In­dige­nous peo­ple col­lected by eth­nol­o­gists into “Amer­i­can Indian art songs.”

As Morin goes down a re­search rab­bit-hole, scenes from the Creek singer (Mar­ion Newman) col­lab­o­rat­ing with Cad­man ( Two Pi­anos, Four Hands’s Richard Green­blatt, who plays piano for much of the play) and Eber­hart (a sly Court­ney Ch’ng Lan­caster) ap­pear on stage.

In di­rec­tor Mar­jorie Chan’s pro­duc­tion, how­ever, it’s un­clear whether th­ese are seen through a por­tal to the past, are drama­ti­za­tions of the doc­u­men­tary sources Morin is read­ing, or are tak­ing place in his imag­i­na­tion.

This points to I Call My­self Princess’s ma­jor struc­tural prob­lem: Morin, our main char­ac­ter, is a prov­ince away from his black, work­ing-class boyfriend – and 100 years away from the rest of the char­ac­ters. Con­flict and dra­matic ten­sion dis­si­pate with all this dis­con­nec­tion and dis­tance.

But this is for­giv­able be­cause Lau­zon’s play, un­like many more well-made plays, is never un­in­ter­est­ing – and it even­tu­ally finds the right an­gle on the ma­te­rial in the sec­ond act, when the pre­tenses of nat­u­ral­ism are aban­doned and Morin be­gins to in­ter­act with the past. We get to hear and watch ex­tracts of this weird but oc­ca­sion­ally won­der­ful 100-yearold “In­di­an­ist” opera in the con­text of its cre­ation – with mod­ern-day mu­si­col­o­gist Morin com­ment­ing and mak­ing clear what has been taken from which In­dige­nous peo­ples.

Play­ing Red­feather and Morin, Newman and Wells are both fine singers and put ironic em­pha­sis on lyrics when war­ranted (as in an in­ad­ver­tently hi­lar­i­ous pow­wow scene with bal­loons and ice cream from Shanewis), while also al­low­ing the beauty of the mu­sic to come out and res­onate when it is, in­deed, beau­ti­ful.

Both Green­blatt and Lan­caster play Cad­man and Eber­hart as com­pli­cated artis­tic al­lies. How could th­ese two both be sym­pa­thetic to the his­tory of na­tiveAmer­i­can dis­pos­ses­sion and dis­place­ment – while at the same time be blind to the fact they were con­tin­u­ing it by us­ing their songs and sto­ries to build per­sonal artis­tic ca­reers and en­rich only them­selves? (Sim­i­lar ques­tions are be­ing asked of Que­bec di­rec­tor Robert Lepage in his cre­ation of Kanata to­day.)

Of course, not ev­ery­one be­lieves that what we call cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing – and in I Call My­self Princess that ar­gu­ment oc­curs be­tween the two In­dige­nous char­ac­ters.

In 1918, Red­feather sees her­self as help­ing pre­serve In­dige­nous cul­ture – and pur­su­ing a mu­si­cal ca­reer that is avail­able to her. In 2018, mean­while, Morin be­lieves Red­feather bought into a colo­nial­ist idea that her cul­ture was dis­ap­pear­ing and aided and abet­ted in the theft of it. While Lau­zon al­lows Morin to mostly win the de­bate in I Call My­self Princess, Red­feather’s res­ur­rec­tion in a 21st-cen­tury play sug­gests they both might have a point.

I Call My­self Princess con­tin­ues un­til Sept. 30.

DAHLIA KATZ

I Call My­self Princess, play­ing at Toronto’s Aki The­atre, fol­lows the story of a na­tive-Amer­i­can opera singer.

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