PuSh Festival: Almighty Voice and His Wife takes its audience on a startling ride
These days, it takes a lot to surprise an audience. But Toronto-based director Michael Greyeyes is constantly amazed at the ability of the play Almighty Voice and His Wife to shock viewers, even though Canadian playwright Daniel David Moses wrote it almost 20 years ago.
What promises to startle audiences at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is the show’s second act, which runs in stark, surreal contrast to the first. Based on the true, late-19th-century story of a Cree man who was hunted down by the Canadian government in Saskatchewan for killing a cow, Almighty Voice begins with a naturalistic, gently moving depiction of the title character and his wife in life. The second act is an abrupt shift into a nightmarish vaudeville act: the couple, now dead, appear in whiteface, and satirize aboriginal-white relations using absurd song-and-dance routines.
“Even when people see the pictures from the show and say, ‘Okay, she’s dressed like a Mountie and she’s in whiteface,’ it still manages to shock them 20 years later,” Greyeyes says over the phone from Toronto, also the home of the show’s producing company, Native Earth Performing Arts. “At the time Daniel David Moses wrote it, he was way ahead of his time. Literally, Canada wasn’t ready for this play when it was first created. It asks its audience to understand a number of concepts: things like the white gaze, understanding how marginalized people internalize racism, the role of how we see ourselves as indigenous people—these things are in the news all the time now, but it was a lot less back when this was created. And Almighty Voice tackled these issues head-on.”
When Greyeyes was first given the play to read by former Native Earth artistic director Yvette Nolan a few years back, he felt an instant connection. Though playwright Moses is actually Delaware by origin, Greyeyes is Cree and grew up in Saskatchewan. He had not heard the story of Almighty Voice, but his parents had.
“When I talk to my parents about the project they say, ‘Oh yeah, I knew that family. They’re from One Arrow,’ ” he relates. “So in a really powerful way, directing this play and digging into it, I learned more about my own past.”
His vision for the show has met with tremendous success: premiering in 2009 at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, this production has been touring Canada and abroad ever since—but is making its first visit here at the PuSh fest. Greyeyes says the play’s lasting power comes from its multilayered meaning. “It’s postmodern, but it has all those things that I love and value in modern or traditional work,” he says. “It touches the heart and challenges intellectual perception, but in the end it’s a love story,”
Greyeyes understandably faced early challenges in casting the show: his performers (Derek Garza and PJ Prudat will appear in Vancouver) not only have to make the realistic love relationship of Act 1 believable, but have to be able to master the outrageous minstrel show of Act 2.
Almighty Voice draws on everything from traditional Native song, dance, and storytelling to film and Brechtian cabaret. Greyeyes says he brings to it the contemporary sensibility he has as an urbanized aboriginal who still has a connection to his roots.
“I had a marvellous upbringing: I grew up in Saskatchewan and moved to Toronto. So I grew up with this incredible mix of cultures,” he says. “I had this rural background but I grew up in an urban environment—I watched Gilligan’s Island and Brady Bunch,” he says, and then sums it up another way: “We knew Spider-Man and we knew powwow songs.”
Almighty Voice and His Wife is at the Waterfront Theatre from February 1 to 4. Michael Greyeyes also performs a “keynote manifesto” about staging ethnicity on February 2 at Performance Works.