Playwright Tomson Highway believes controversy is good for art

As Stratford remounts his play The Rez Sisters, the writer reflects on residential schools, casting of Indigenous actors and protests

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      Tomson Highway loves a scandal. In fact, he says art needs more of them.

      When his play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing was mounted at the Royal Alexandra Theatre 30 years ago, protesters picketed the show, complaining about what they saw as misogyny and violence against women. Some audience members walked out. One woman fainted. (If you haven’t seen or read the play, I won’t spoil the details about the particularly controversial scenes.)

      “What I heard is that this woman fainted towards the front of the theatre,” Highway says. “The ushers came, took off her shoes and carried her to the washroom to revive her. When she came to, an usher asked if she wanted a taxi, and she said, ‘No. I want to watch the show to the very end.’”

      Highway, whose conversation is sprinkled with delightful asides and embellishments, says the result was good for business. The box office exploded.

      Our writer Jon Kaplan put Highway on the April 11, 1991, cover for the remount of Dry Lips, which had been a hit at Theatre Passe Muraille in a coproduction with Native Earth Performing Arts, where Highway was currently artistic director. That original production won several Dora Awards and a Chalmers Award for best new Canadian play. The move to the much bigger house—and a whole different audience—marked a significant shift in his career, even though the remount coincided with the death of his beloved brother, René.

      “He died right before the Royal Alex engagement happened,” says Highway, on the phone from his home in the township of Aylmer, Quebec, near Ottawa. “We worked so closely as partners. My parents had 12 children; I was the 11th, and René was the 12th. We grew up like twins. We were very close, and when he died that was a hard period in my life. He wasn’t a part of that production, but they preserved most of his choreography [from the earlier staging], so he was there in spirit.”

      Highway says mounting the play at the prestigious Royal Alex—not just the first Indigenous play but the first Canadian play to get a full production there—was a risk for producer David Mirvish. But they were blessed with luck. A month before the show went up, actor Graeme Greene was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Dances With Wolves.

      That made up for the letters the theatre received, one of which said “Tomson Highway is the reincarnation of Satan.” (In the original story, republished below, he describes the metaphor behind the play’s rape sequence.)

      This month Stratford Festival is reviving Highway’s earlier play, The Rez Sisters, the first of his Rez cycle of boisterous plays. Highway says he modelled it—perhaps subconsciously—on the story of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs; he points out how each of the female characters has their counterpart with a Disney character, with Nanabush—a complex figure he explains in the article reprinted below—as the title character.

      He’s not involved in this production, and doesn’t get to see all the productions around the globe, although he says some Japanese stagings of his works have been among his favourites. He’s also fond of the versions of the plays in which he translated the English to Cree, the language he grew up with in northern Manitoba.

      Original photo by David Laurence

      At the end of Kaplan’s cover story, Highway discusses how he’d like to formulate a rich history of Indigenous plays and playwrights. “When that proud day arrives, we’ll have our own home-grown Stratford festival,” he said back then.

      Highway still loves the idea, but he doesn’t agree with the idea that only Indigenous actors should play Indigenous roles.

      “That’s like saying only Italian actors should play Romeo and Juliet, or only Danish actors should play Hamlet,” he says. “This limits the produce-ability of a play. It affects my livelihood when a play is not done because they can’t find Native actors. I think a writer has the right to cast anybody in whatever role, whether it’s Tennessee Williams, Michel Tremblay or Jason Sherman. Can you imagine Jason Sherman—whom I adore—limiting his parts to only Jewish actors? His career wouldn’t have gone very far.”

      When I suggest casting Indigenous actors in his plays gives them more opportunities for work, Highway says things should go much further.

      “The most brilliant [Indigenous] actors should have the right to play Stanley in Streetcar. The sky should be the limit for them. I’m taking an extreme example here, but for an actor to work beside Meryl Streep would be a privilege beyond compare—think of what they would learn, and what a better actor they would be afterwards. We need those kinds of opportunities. It should be an open field. Encourage people to fly as high as they possibly can.”

      The recent discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children from the country’s residential schools didn’t shock the playwright, but he says it stopped him in his tracks.

      “I mourned them in my own way,” he says. “The upshot of it all, and I talked to another Native artist about it, is all the more reason to create even more beautiful art. The greater the tragedy, the more beautiful the song. It’s given us fire to feed our imaginations in a way that they could not have been fed. When you look at history, you’ll always find that a glorious period of artistic production is preceded by a traumatic event.”

      Highway’s memoir, Permanent Astonishment, is coming out in September, and in it he recounts his own time spent in a residential school—nine years in all, with two months back with his parents each summer.

      “It was a very positive experience for me personally,” he says, understanding that this particular spin on residential schools could be shocking to some readers.

      “I laughed a lot [during that time], mainly because the Cree language is the funniest language on the face of the earth,” he says. “But a story that takes place in what theoretically is a tragic place might shock people. I was lucky. The periods at home with my parents were unbelievably beautiful. I had a childhood that was better than the children of Queen Elizabeth II.”

      Below is Jon Kaplan’s cover story, "Tomson Highway: Boisterous Dry Lips moves to Royal digs," republished from NOW Magazine’s April 11, 1991, issue.

      Original photo by David Laurence

      Native visions spark Dry Lips’ stage sensation

      By Jon Kaplan

      Tomson Highway’s eyes flicker with a sense of his own outrageousness. And As Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing, the playwright’s 1989 hit, gets set to move into the Royal Alexandra, he can appreciate the irony of his success.

      His funky, funny, unabashedly sexual plays about life on the reservation are not exactly predictable candidates for mainstream consumption. Yet, by tapping into the native psyche and providing dramatic life for his people’s legends and dream world, Highway has given Canadian native theatre a national and international prominence it’s never had before.

      At the centre of his theatrical world is the boisterous Rez cycle, a group of seven plays about the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian reserve on Manitoulin Island.

      Though only two of the plays—The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing—have been written and produced so far, Highway has already created a group of vibrant figures related in a familial and social context and woven into a colourful tapestry of human needs and experiences.

      But Highway never treads a safe, humanist line. His comedy is the kind that presses buttons, stretching perceptions of life on the reservation. And like his previous show Aria—a searing one-woman piece that both celebrates the power of women and indicts their brutalization at the hands of a patriarchal society—his plays resonate with an unusual empathy for women’s experience.

      The Rez Sisters, the cycle’s first work, recounts how seven women from Wasaychigan Hill hear that the world’s biggest bingo game is slated for Toronto and make an epic journey to the big city to fulfill their personal quests.

      In Dry Lips—the flip side of The Rez Sisters—seven men from the rez, relatives of the women, become distraught when they discover that the women are forming their own hockey team.

      The first presentation of Dry Lips, produced on a small budget in 1989, was a coproduction by Highway’s Native Earth Performing Arts and Theatre Passe Muraille.

      Now, Dry Lips returns to Toronto as a large-budget Royal Alex attraction, ushering a disarming dramatic sensibility to an audience doubtless unschooled in Highway’s unique brand of theatrical havoc.

      “In Dry Lips, the trickster Nanabush possesses the souls of three women, stereotypes from the most chauvinistic perspective—the whore, the mother, and the rape victim, who can be seen as tits, belly, and ass.”

      Highway sits talking in his compact Native Earth office, located across the street from the Native Canadian Centre.

      Soul possession

      Surrounding his desk are the skeletons from the company’s last production, Son Of Ayash, as well as one of the four Dora awards Dry Lips won in its first mounting and the brightly coloured powwow dancing bustle from that show.

      He talks softly, but there’s no doubt about his passionate commitment to his work and his people—the two go hand in hand. His seriousness, though, is shot through with wit and the occasional outrageous dramatic moment.

      For instance, his handling of the rape in Dry Lips has raised audience complaints about the play. The rape involves an unexpected instrument and is brutally presented in a scene that has met with cries of blasphemy, sacrilege, and anger over the female role models.

      “In a way, I’m glad of reactions like that,” admits Highway, “because I’m tired of being patted on the head. In the end, that sort of reaction shows me that the audiences have been affected. The play’s done its job.

      “The rape episode is a metaphor for the collision of matriarchal religion and patriarchal force, with the rape of the god-as-woman by a male figure,” Highway explains. “Until patriarchal theology goes out the window, women will be treated this way. It’s a 2,000-year-old wound that has to be healed if our society and the earth are to survive.”

      Dry Lips pursues Highway’s fascination with sexual transformation by making the Nanabush figure a gender-blended character who celebrates all possible forms of physicality.

      Gender blend

      “In North American Indian languages such as Cree and Ojibway, there’s no gender distinction. Nanabush can be either sex—or both at the same time. In the third play of the cycle, I plan to have all 14 characters from the previous works and a Nanabush who is both sexes.”

      Nanabush, notes Highway, personifies the fundamental unity of flesh, shit and soil—her conversations with her anus are hilarious—in a version of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

      Highway admits that the figure has been suppressed even in native culture for the past several centuries, “though we have her inside us and she can possess us in spirit.

      “In her human persona, Nanabush articulates the belief of a society that’s not anally retentive. The most private part of humans, the anus, is the centre of human honesty. Through Nanabush, I’d like to address the anal retentiveness of mainstream white society, where the sexual organs are seen as instruments of evil.

      “In fact, they’re the most beautiful things on the face of the earth. Any theology or philosophy that holds that genitals are the instruments of the devil sees their use to be evil. Until that idea changes, women and children will continue to be the objects of abuse.”

      Highway is deft at framing issues and never fails to show his passion for ideas, but the richness of his scripts comes primarily from his immense talents as a storyteller.

      “Theatre is an exciting medium for me because I love entertaining and fabulous stories,” says the playwright. “I’m riveted by tales that have dramatic tension, that move up and down the scale, brought to life by talented, beautiful people on the stage and the designers and directors who work behind the scenes.”

      Still, in conversation, he has a lot of the philosopher in him. As he talks about his art, he inevitably puts his views on the nature of beauty into the mix. He thinks of beauty in an almost platonic way, as one of the highest virtues to which humans can aim.

      “The idea of beauty incorporates the physical, sensual, sexual and spiritual. In its ultimate form, beauty is the closest we come to contact with god—whether we believe in god, heaven or a supreme electrical energy that drives the universe and its contents.

      “We experience that idea of the divine in beauty and its harmony within forces. The balance is one you find temporarily and momentarily, but it’s one that can change your life.”

      In his thoughts on beauty and harmony, Highway might as easily be talking about music as about theatre. In fact, his first focus in the arts was on music. He studied piano as a teenager and then full-time after he graduated from high school. He spent a year in England studying to be a concert pianist with William Aide and returned to Canada to finish a BA in music in 1975.

      Piano fantasy

      “I love music of all kinds,” he says with a dreamy smile. “When I’m listening to a good pianist—whether the music is classical, jazz or honky-tonk—I fantasize about becoming a professional pianist again.”

      He gives another smile, this time sharper and with a twinkle in his eye.

      “It’s a nice fantasy. And I believe in the importance of fantasy in a person’s life.”

      Though Highway stayed at school for another year to get an English degree, both literature and music became secondary for the next several years of his life. He turned his energies to working with various native organizations around the country, becoming familiar with the networks and politics that linked individuals and groups in Canada.

      His observations during this period inspired him to turn his attention to theatre as a means of speaking to and for his people. Highway discovered the opportunity in 1986 when he became the artistic director of the already-established Native Earth Performing Arts.

      “I realized that Chopin can’t work with Indians. Their two worlds are irreconcilable. Theatre has always attracted me, ever since university days when I came into contact with the playwright and poet James Reaney. That was the medium I could use to say some of the things I felt important, and I could even draw on some of the same musical concepts.

      “Both music and theatre speak to a live audience. The dialogue I write is a kind of singing, though orchestral rather than for a solo instrument. From the construction of a sentence to that of an entire scene, my writing is like music-making—I think about phrasing, harmony, counterpoint and rhythm.”

      Highway’s success as a playwright has helped raise the profile of other native dramatists such as Daniel David Moses, Margo Kane, and Drew Taylor. Through Native Earth’s annual Weesageechak Begins to Dance festival, Highway is giving these and other writers a chance to workshop their plays. He often draws on the scripts for Native Earth’s next season.

      “We’re still finding out feet as theatre artists, though each year we’re handling the medium more and more skilfully. If we have our way, native theatre will become a permanent and integral part of Canadian culture—one of the cultural products that defines Canadian uniqueness.

      “I’m hoping for the day when we have world class drama that speaks in Cree, that comes to us from 7,000 years ago and mines my history as Shakespeare mined English history. I want to formulate a dramatic literature equally as significant to this country’s life as As You Like It and Romeo And Juliet are to the British.”

      Highway smiles slyly again.

      “When that proud days arrives, we’ll have our own home-grown Stratford festival. It’s a fantasy, but as I said before, it’s worth fantasizing.”

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