Created by Daniel Arnold, Darrell Dennis, and Medina Hahn. A Touchstone Theatre and Alley Theatre production, in association with Vancouver Moving Theatre and community partnership with the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre. At the Annex Theatre on Thursday, March 5. Continues to March 15
What would you do if an Indigenous nation laid claim to the land your family cabin—your “inheritance”—sits on? Would you split the territory 50-50? Hand it all over? Tell them to get off "your" property?
Daniel Arnold, Darrell Dennis, and Medina Hahn’s creatively ambitious new interactive production actually invites you to answer those and other questions—anonymously—and your responses will help shape the course of the story. The real question is, though: will you be honest, or choose what you perceive to be the right, progressive course of action? In its investigation of unceded land, Inheritance: a pick-the-path experience makes you consider your own actions and responsibility as our nation manoeuvres reconciliation and justice.
That may be one of the biggest achievements in what is also a pretty fun idea. When audience members enter either side of the traverse stage area, they find clickers on their seats. At certain segments of the show, they're given the chance to vote by multiple choice on the route the play should take. The onus this puts on the actors, with about 50 possible pathways, is mind-boggling, but the cast rides the shifts with apparent ease.
Sometimes the questions are simple—our first assignment is to choose the music that opens the show (will that be the Clash or A Tribe Called Red?), sometimes they are funny (one selection reads “Keep that shit to yourself”), and sometimes they tread into more political questions about property rights in our postcolonial world.
The show gets off to a strong and engaging start, with urbanites Abbey (Hahn) and Noah (Arnold) disembarking from a boat to visit her father at the remote rural cabin that's been in the family for years. But when they arrive, they only find Frank (Darrell Dennis), a local Indigenous man, staying there instead.
Dennis is adept at creating a character who can by turns seem sinister or harmless, mixing humour with more cutting gibes at the couple’s privilege—say, Noah’s fear of bears. Over time, he reveals himself an astute, politicized thinker, one with a sardonic bent; listen to the way he laughs when Noah talks about the progress of reconciliation.
Things feel a little stretched when it’s revealed Abbey’s father has set up a sort of scavenger hunt for the land’s deed. A hunting gun comes into play, and Dennis starts to list off a lot of facts about land claims and history. The book Unsettling Canada takes a role, and it seems to have inspired a lot of the writing, too. The fact that the non-Indigenous population hogs 99.8 percent of the land in this country, and the way that links to dependency and poverty, is a fact that forms the basis of Frank’s argument—timely information to emphasize in this province right now.
Those facts make the plot bog down a bit near the end, even with the fun facts (the definition of “unceded”, say) that pop up occasionally on the show’s two big screens.
Those projections also tally our votes, as well as showcase coolly expressive cabin sketches, map illustrations, and other imagery by Sammy Chien, Chimerik, and Shang-Han Chien.
Set designer Lauchlin Johnston conjures additional visual interest with a zig-zaggy stage that looks like a deconstructed 3-D map sprouting sawed-off tree stumps.
Dennis and Arnold’s characters develop a rich dynamic, the liberal-minded Noah trying to bro it up hilariously with the acerbic stranger. And the script cleverly digs into ideas of entitlement, liberalism, and privilege. At one point, Abbey and Noah try to argue they deserve the land because they’re pinched by the sky-high costs of real estate (presumably Vancouver's)—as if that would compare to centuries of mistreatment.
The play might have garnered even more layers of debate by emphasizing Hahn’s own immigrant past in a stronger way. And some of its late-stage historic explanation could have been tightened up. All of this should be qualified, however, by the fact that the show changes drastically each night due to audience choices; word-of-mouth is that it can be by turns lighter and funnier or more of an action-thriller.
Still, the creative team is definitely on to something here, using a lively mix of humour and interactive technology to work through heavy concepts. Viewers go out into the night with the knowledge that land issues will never be solved with an easy click of the button. And more importantly, with plenty to think about their own role in the matter.