Director Renae Morriseau brings Taran Kootenhayoo's comedic take on race to the stage in White Noise

It's the Firehall Arts Centre and Savage Society's tribute to a talented Indigenous artist whose death 15 months ago left the community reeling

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      There’s a sadness that still lingers over Vancouver’s arts and Indigenous communities dating back to the start of 2021. That year opened with news of a terrible loss. Taran Kootenhayoo, a brilliant 27-year-old playwright and actor, had died on New Year’s Eve.

      Kootenhayoo, a member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation from Cold Lake, Alberta, was mourned as a “generous spirit”, a “beacon”, a “beloved friend”, and “such a bright, wise soul”. But because his death occurred in the midst of the pandemic, it was hard for those who loved him in Vancouver to gather in large numbers to pay their respects.

      So from April 16 to May 1, the Firehall Arts Centre and Savage Society will honour Kootenhayoo’s memory by presenting his play, White Noise, which was shown as a workshop production at the Talking Stick Festival in 2019.

      “It’s heartbreaking, but this is probably the best way we can celebrate his life that I can think of,” Savage Society artistic director Kevin Loring tells the Straight by phone. “Many of us are still sort of reeling from that tragedy, but this work will live on.”

      The Savage Society works with many young Indigenous artists.

      Renae Morriseau is the director of White Noise.

      Loring, also director of Indigenous theatre at the National Arts Centre, remembers the day when Kootenhayoo told him that he would like to write a play.

      “I said okay,” Loring says. “We supported him in writing the grants and getting ready to do a workshop of a first draft. We walked him through the process of what he needed to do.”

      Loring, who’s of Nlaka’pamux heritage and from the Lytton First Nation, initially didn’t know what to expect. But right out of the gate, in the first reading, the feedback was entirely positive.

      Loring recalls hearing peers say, “We’ve got a writer on our hands; he’s really clever and has a lot to say.”

      “We just went from there, and [the play] just kept building its own momentum,” Loring says.

      White Noise is a biting comedy about two families—Indigenous and white—who have dinner together during Truth and Reconciliation Week. It’s directed by Renae Morriseau, a veteran Cree and Saulteaux actor, writer, director, and producer originally from the Treaty 1 Territory of Manitoba.

      For Morriseau, this project is very personal. When she played the character of Ellen Kenidi on the CBC show North of 60 in the 1990s, Kootenhayoo’s mother was on the production team and brought her kids onto the set. Kootenhayoo’s sister Cheyanna, a.k.a. DJ Kookum, is the associate director and sound designer on White Noise.

      Morriseau describes the loss of Kootenhayoo as devastating for the community, describing him as a “very endearing young man”.

      White Noise is Taran’s first kick at the can in terms of theatre,” she tells the Straight by phone.

      Morriseau is reluctant to share too many details about the plot. That prompts the Straight to ask if the white family is ignorant about the true history of Canada.

      “I’m not going to tell you,” she replies with a laugh. “Keep guessing.”

      She’s more forthcoming in discussing the dynamics of the production, which features performances by Sam Bob, Columpa Bobb, Braiden Houle, Mike Wasko, Anita Wittenberg, and Anais West.

      Experienced Indigenous actors Bob and Bobb (the daughter of author and poet Lee Maracle) play the parents to Houle’s character. Wasko and Wittenberg play the white parents of West’s character.

      Bob, Houle, and Wittenberg performed in the 2019 workshopped production.

      Morriseau appreciates how Kootenhayoo’s play offers an opportunity for the cast to unpack undercurrents of racism and racial stereotypes.

      “In what way do we speak about the history of Canada and its impact on Indigenous communities and their health and their education?” Morriseau asks. “I think for the First Nations actors that are all on [stage] here, they’re talking about their experiences. And the Canadian actors are having to look at their own place in society and what that represents for them in the conversations that are happening on the page.”

      According to Morriseau, this is done in the context of Kootenhayoo’s “cringey, curious comedy about the grey area” where humour intersects with culture.

      “One of the greatest things is to laugh about ourselves and our human condition,” she says.

      Braiden Houle and Sam Bob reprise their roles as the Indigenous father and son in White Noise after they appeared in a workshopped version at the Anvil Centre during the 2019 Talking Stick Festival.
      Melody Charlie

      As the director, Morriseau infused Indigenous perspectives into the play. One example is in the set, which features words on geometric shapes in the Stoney language of Kootenhayoo’s Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation.

      “Much of the cast and pretty much all of the crew are Indigenous, so it’s pretty emotional in that way,” she says.

      Morriseau has a great deal of experience working in Indigenous communities, most recently in Northern Manitoba. There, she was running workshops stimulating observations of reality in what’s known as “theatre of the oppressed”, which was developed by Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal. Morriseau was helping women who had suffered as a result of their experience with addiction and prostitution gain an understanding of legislative changes to the sex industry in Canada.

      Morriseau concedes that this work is emotionally gruelling and can lead to nightmares. So returning to Vancouver to direct a comedy offers welcome relief.

      “I’m just so honoured that I can bring Taran Kootenhayoo’s work to the Firehall theatre,” she says.

      The Firehall Arts Centre and Savage Society will present the world premiere of White Noise at the Firehall Arts Centre on April 20. Previews begin on April 16 and the show will continue until May 1.