Quite rightly, actor and playwright Darrell Dennis suggests the timing could not be better for Inheritance, a choose-your-adventure production that asks audiences to think seriously about the issue of land ownership.
As seen on the news each night, Canadians of all ethnicities are currently banding together to support Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who’ve opposed pipelines running through their traditional territories. Attend a cultural event in Vancouver, and odds are the night will start with the acknowledgment that residents of the city are living on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam nations.
Those realities help set up Inheritance, which was written by Dennis and his costars Daniel Arnold and Medina Hahn. In the production, the colonial property rights to a remote rural estate are available, with audience members to decide if those rights will go to an urban couple (Arnold and Hahn) or an Indigenous character played by Dennis.
“This could not be more timely with all the protests and blockades,” says the B.C.–raised Dennis, reached in his adopted home of Los Angeles. “It’s a play that asks who has the right to develop on land, who has the right to own land, and who has the right to say that the land is theirs. These are all issues that have been a part of Canada’s legacy since its inception, and it continues today. That’s something that we really go into great detail about.”
Dennis, who is from the Secwepemc Nation, said the beginnings of Inheritance can be traced back a half-decade, to when he was working on a Harold Pinter play in Kamloops with Arnold and Hahn.
“That’s where we all met, and Daniel started telling me about this idea, and how he wanted to do a play about the idea of land, and land ownership, and who has access to land and the right to it,” he recalls. “Obviously, when talking about issues like that, he wanted to put an Indigenous element into it. So we began sharing ideas.”
In Inheritance, audience members use handheld electronic devices to vote on over 50 options that determine the direction the performance will take.
“What our play allows is the group collective to let their anonymous opinions come through to choose the directions the characters will take and how the play will end,” Dennis says. “That also gives a sense of where Canadians are at on this issue of land and who gets to share it. So it’s not only an interesting theatrical experience, but also kind of a thought experiment on how people think in this regional area of British Columbia.”
That anonymity is important.
“When we were doing workshops, obviously we didn’t have the technology for this that we do now to guide the action,” Dennis says. “Participants in the workshops had little signs that said ‘1’, ‘2’, or ‘3’, and they used those to choose the path. You could see people nervously looking around to see what the other people were going to choose before they made their decision.”
What he likes about Inheritance is that it challenges without sermonizing: “It’s not two hours of going in there and getting a lecture,” he continues. “There’s comedy and humour, and it’s a fast-paced story that progresses like choose-your-own-adventure books. Anything that happens comes out of the choices that we’re giving the audience. It sounds like it could be ‘Come and get a lecture, and then choose another lecture,’ but it’s absolutely the opposite.”
Touchstone Theatre and Alley Theatre present Inheritance at the Orpheum Annex from Tuesday (March 3) to March 15, in association with Vancouver Moving Theatre.