Whenever Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams travelled from Saskatchewan to visit his white, Eastern Canadian relatives as a child, he remembers feeling like his Toronto family was part of a foreign culture. "They were very exotic to me," the Saskatoon-based writer recalls.
Toronto is becoming a much less exotic locale for Williams, however, as a wave of success he's had in Western Canada begins to reach the country's biggest theatre centre. He last had a play produced here in 2004; this season, he has three.
Café Daughter, a touching, family-friendly play about a girl growing up Cree and Chinese-Canadian in 1960s Saskatchewan, just completed a week-long run in its original award-winning production from Whitehorse's Gwaandak Theatre. Meanwhile, Thunderstick, a raucous 2001 farce Williams first made his name with, opened at the Toronto Free Gallery on Friday starring the Royal Canadian Air Farce's Craig Lauzon.
Next, in April, Native Earth Performing Arts will premiere Deserters, which is set in a dystopian future and is Williams's first play to not have any identifiably aboriginal characters.
That's still a risky artistic decision for a playwright with one foot in the country's network of Native-focused theatre companies, the other in the "mainstream" ones.
"People want to know what's native about your show, what's native about you," Williams acknowledges, "because how you fit into a certain pigeonhole helps with marketing."
As the ongoing Idle No More movement puts Aboriginal issues back at the top of the news agenda, First Nations theatre is having one of its periodic moments in the spotlight, a trend that began with Tomson Highway's cross-over hit The Rez Sisters in 1986.
Two plays by first-time playwrights have experienced nationwide success in recent years: Waawaate Fobister's Agokwe – a tale of "gay love on the rez" – won the Dora Award for best new play in 2009, the same year Kevin Loring's residential-school drama Where the Blood Mixes won the Governor General's Award. Both have been in regular rotation ever since.
Williams's achievement has been a little longer coming. He earned his Masters of Fine Arts in playwriting from the University of Alberta in 1992, but then ended up detouring into journalism – reporting for Windspeaker, then spending 61/2 years as a video journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. "Living on Plan B," as he puts it.
In 2006, however, having turned 40, Williams decided to idle no more and pursue his dream full-time. The focus has paid off: He's no longer the Thunderstick one-hit wonder – and recently had five different shows produced in a single 18-month period.
A stocky, jocular fellow, Williams is distinguished by a wicked and somewhat politically incorrect sense humour. He added the T into his name, he says, to avoid Google confusion with a British comedian. Only afterward, he says, did he realize it sounded like someone saying Tennessee Williams with a lisp. (Try it out: Kenneth T. Williams.)
Well before Loring examined the legacy of the residential-school abuse in a sombre manner in Where the Blood Mixes, Thunderstick had done the same in a comedy that was outright silly and often scatological.
Jacob Thunderstick, an alcoholic Parliament Hill reporter, and his cousin Isaac, a hardened photojournalist, try to break a story about a government minister running off with a National Chief to have a secret lesbian romance.
Along the way, the two cousins get thrown into jail, have their heads pushed into toilet bowls and projectile vomit all over Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. They end up hiding from wild animals when their car breaks down one night on a snow-filled road ("what would our ancestors think of us!") – and it's only with the wolves literally at the door that they stop to talk about their difficult childhood experiences.
As soon as morning comes, however, it's back to madcap farce. "That was the thing – I didn't want to show someone disappearing," says Williams, who covered Ottawa politics himself for APTN – after writing the play. "I wanted to show two guys trying to make their way."
Thunderstick's sensibility has not always earned it the seal of approval from critics – it was given a whole half-star by this paper in 2002 – but it's proven tremendously popular with native audiences and actors, particularly on a recent four-city Western Canadian tour in which Lorne Cardinal of Corner Gas fame and Lauzon traded off the roles.
"You put that play in front of a bunch of First Nations men – they howl, they just go ballistic; they laugh what's left of their asses off," Williams says. "A lot of non-natives couldn't go there."
The question of which audience and which theatre companies to target is a enduring puzzle for First Nations playwrights. It's no wonder straddling identities is the subject of so many native-Canadian plays, such as Williams's Café Daughter – which is based on the life of the Honourable Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, a Senator who hails, like Williams, from the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan.
Like the Senator, Williams comes from a mixed background. His mother was Cree, his father "a shade of pale," as he puts it, who worked as a physical-education teacher at the infamous Gordon Indian Residential School, where administrator William Starr sexually abused an untold number of children.
Williams experienced subtler discrimination as a child: Because of his non-native father, he was not allowed to live on the reserve – and his family moved to Prince Albert, then Edmonton. He was a frequent visitor to his Cree relatives, however, and they are much closer to him than those in faraway Toronto were.
The playwright gained his official Indian status when Bill C-31 was passed in 1985. With plays like Deserters and one he's workshopping about King Lear for the Citadel in Edmonton, however, he is – like many of his contemporaries – continuing to stretch what it means to be "Indian" and a playwright. "I will always have these stories that come from my own community," he says. "I also want to expand what we consider aboriginal art, aboriginal creativity."
On Idle No More and racism
In Kenneth T. Williams's plays, First Nations characters are as likely to be perpetrators of racism as they are victims.
Yvette, the mixed-race protagonist of Café Daughter, fights her own internalized racism after her dying mother tells her: "You're not one of them. You never, ever tell anyone that you are." At school, she experiences racism from the other side – when a First Nations classmate calls her "gook" and "chink."
"We hurt people as much as we get hurt by people," Williams says. "The most dangerous thing people can do to themselves or to others is to elevate them, almost sanctify them."
Gordon Winter, another recent Williams play, is based on the trials of David Ahenakew, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations who was accused of willfully promoting hatred after a racist tirade. "If we charged everyone with racism then the jails would be packed," the young Mohawk lawyer Cynthia, representing Winter in the play, argues.
It's a line that resonates in light of hateful online reactions to Idle No More protests. "It's almost like we're sucking the poison out of this country with this," Williams says.
But Williams is proud to be a part of Idle No More – participating in a recent round dance flash mob at a Saskatoon mall and promoting it from his active Twitter account @feralkenneth. "This movement is a little different – a lot of humour is being used. If you can make them laugh, then they can't be angry with you."