It’s no mystery to Drew Hayden Taylor why Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, first produced in 1998, remains the most popular of his plays: the story it tells is as relevant now as ever.
It’s a story of family. It’s a story of loss. It’s a story of truth, and of reconciliation. Most intimately, it’s the story of Janice, an adopted Indigenous woman who has found economic success but not happiness in Toronto, and her blood sister Barb, who managed to stay with her birth mother in Otter Lake, an Aboriginal community that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hayden Taylor’s home reserve. And, most pressingly, it’s a story about the “ ’60s scoop”, in which Canada’s paternalistic government removed tens of thousands of Indigenous children from their birth families and gave them to strangers—mostly white strangers—to raise.
Even in Indigenous communities, the consequences of the scoop are not fully understood, Hayden Taylor says. “When I wrote the play,” he explains on his cellphone from Toronto, “I was surprised to discover about the scoop-up. I had no real knowledge of it, but I had been dating a woman who had been adopted, and I had many friends in the Native community who had been adopted, and I was sort of unconsciously aware of a lot of adopted Native people who I kept running across in my travels—disproportionately more than in the non-Native community.”
Once Hayden Taylor started researching the play, he soon found out why.
“It astounded me,” he says. “I thought ‘Why don’t I know this? Why don’t most people know this?’ So I thought ‘Maybe I’ll deal with it by writing a short story,’ which was on the front page of the Globe and Mail on Christmas 1990. Then I adapted it into a play called Someday, which was very successful, and then I wrote a sequel to it called Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth.”
In 2005, 400 Kilometres completed the trilogy, but Only Drunks and Children remains Hayden Taylor’s most produced script. This year alone, it’s been staged in Kamloops and Gananoque, Ontario; a mounting has just opened in Thunder Bay; and the Firehall Arts Centre’s new version opens this week. (Intriguingly, Columpa C. Bobb, who played Barb in the Firehall’s 1998 production, is back, this time to direct.)
Has Hayden Taylor had to adapt his script to changing times?
“No,” he says, with a mixture of pride and regret. “The script holds together remarkably well. It doesn’t feel particularly dated; it still deals with relevant issues and the emotions involved. It’s still quite in the now. The only thing I noticed when I was watching it recently is that I used the word Indian a bit more frequently than I would today.
“I mean, things have changed a certain extent,” he says. “There’s the compensation package that’s being given to some adoptees.…But, still, an apology and money doesn’t make everything go away. You’re still dealing with the intergenerational effects of it. It had much the same effect as the residential schools: you had an entire generation removed from their culture, from their family, from knowing who they are and where they came from.”
This was not Hayden Taylor’s experience, however. The fair-haired, blue-eyed playwright often jokes that his mixed Ojibwa and Caucasian heritage makes him “an Occasion”, but is just as quick to point out that he grew up and still lives on the Curve Lake reserve, near Peterborough, Ontario.
“I never knew my father, who was my white half,” he says. “I was raised by my mother, on the reserve, surrounded by an absolutely huge extended family, so for all intents and purposes I was raised Anishinabe.”
It’s that sense of community, he adds, not any experience of loss, that made him a writer. “During the summer my grandparents would have these huge bonfires where all our extended family and friends would come over, and they’d sit around the bonfire, telling funny stories. And when it was time for me to go to bed, I’d go home and I would go to sleep still hearing the funny stories being told—and the laughter permeated my unconscious and my subconscious to the point that I found myself wanting to share and tell humorous, funny stories, from and about the people I grew up with.
“That was one of the strongest influences I had in my development as a writer,” he adds. “I went from being a campfire storyteller to a contemporary storyteller, which involves telling stories for the stage, for the screen, and for the page.”
At the moment, Hayden Taylor is “23,000 words into” a First Nations horror novel that draws on traditional Ojibwa stories of a malign forest monster, the wendigo. The National Arts Centre has recently premiered Sir John: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion, which examines Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, from a First Nations perspective. And he’s hard at work on a new play for Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, Cottagers and Indians, which looks at settler resistance to the replanting of the wild rice plants that once fed his ancestors—and an entire ecosystem.
Serious topics all, but not so serious that, like Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, they don’t tell their hard truths with considerable warmth.
“I remember having a conversation with someone from the Blood reserve in Alberta who told me that, in his opinion, humour is the WD40 of healing,” Hayden Taylor says. “I thought that was so cool it was almost T-shirt–worthy. So that’s sort of become my personal mantra: I want to celebrate the Indigenous sense of humour.”
Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth runs at the Firehall Arts Centre from Saturday (November 11) to December 2.More