Welcome to the future of Canadian history theatre
Ten playwrights of different backgrounds and languages come together to produce a play about Gabriel Dumont that pleases, puzzles and provokes through wildly shifting forms
Who should tell the story of Gabriel Dumont, the multilingual master of the buffalo hunt who commanded the Métis forces in the North-West Resistance of 1885? In a fascinating new play that had a rowdy opening at the National Arts Centre's French Theatre this week (including a heckler storming out in a fury), the answer is: Everybody, all at once.
Ten playwrights of different languages and backgrounds have written Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont – which will tour from Ottawa to Montreal, Winnipeg and Saskatoon – through a process more similar to what you'd find in a television writers' room than the average rehearsal room. But the result is something altogether its own: A 2 1/2-hour history play that pleases, puzzles and provokes, in a form that keeps shifting wildly from one moment to the next like a bucking bronco. One moment it's a poetic drama, the next a comedy – then cabaret, RCMP musical ride or game show. There's even a scene in which Don Cherry provides colour commentary on the Battle of Duck Lake.
Is this the future of Canadian history theatre, staging our stories in a way that avoids cultural appropriation by including everyone's voice – or is Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont a case of too many cooks and a spoilt broth?
Playwrights Alexis Martin, of Montreal, and Jean Marc Dalpé, a franco-Ontarian, had the original idea for the show. Martin, who runs a company called Le Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental, was coming off of having written an epic, seven-hour trilogy about the history of French Canada from 1608 to 1998 – but regretted that he had neglected too much of what happened outside the St. Lawrence Valley in it.
He teamed up with Dalpé and the two ended up becoming focused on the Métis resistance – and felt they'd found the seed of a play after learning that Dumont, after he became a refugee in the United States following the defeat of his and Louis Riel's provisional government in Saskatchewan, had joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show as a performer. But the two also realized that, in this era, it was going to be a problem for a pair of white francophones from the East to tell that particular tale alone. "We can't appropriate a story that is not our own," Martin says. "So we decided to talk to the interested communities who participated in this history."
The two playwrights took a trip to Saskatoon and began to assemble a team of collaborators. The first workshop – funded by theatre companies in four provinces and a sesquicentennial New Chapter grant from the Canada Council – was held there two summers ago. Yvette Nolan, a Prince Albert, Sask.-born playwright with an Algonquin mother and Irish-immigrant father, came on as a third head writer – and the "writers' room" eventually included seven others: Métis writers and performers Paula-Jean (PJ) Prudat and Andrea Menard, Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, Western Canadian francophone playwrights David Granger, Laura Lussier, Gilles Poulin-Denis; and the Northern Ontarian anglophone playwright Mansel Robinson, who had lived in Saskatchewan for 20 years.
On the first day together, the group took a trip to Batoche and walked the battlefields where, on May 20, 1885, General Frederick Middleton's Canadian forces eventually defeated those Dumont commanded after Métis victories in Frog Lake and Fish Creek.
"My mother's family on both sides were heavily involved in the Métis resistance," says Prudat, whose mother's great-great-grandfather, Maxime Dubois, appears along with Riel in a photo of Métis men in chains. "Especially for Andrea and me, it was vital that the Métis be represented – and be represented in a way that was truthful to us."
Afterward, Martin, Dalpé and the other writers discussed the events they wanted the show to touch on and different people picked different sections to write. Their scenes were gradually pulled together into what Prudat calls "one big stew."
"PJ writes like magic realism, while Mansel Robinson is sarcastic and writes in lists," Nolan says. "The styles are so different."
The languages are different, too – and, while French is the most dominant, there are six languages in the play and nine translators credited on the show.
The idea that a live performance should be a broth that can go down smoothly, rather than a chunky stew you have to chew, is a fairly modern idea, really.
Most successful new forms of theatre, scholar Ric Knowles has argued, were originally hybrids, from the ancient Greeks to the Elizabethan theatre – and bison hunter-turned-showman William Frederick Cody a.k.a. Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows were definitely hybrid spectacles. They mixed pageantry with rodeo, vaudeville with circus and entertained crowds of 20,000 as the company toured around North America and Europe in its heyday in the 19th century.
You could say, in a way, the Wild West show was the first time the Métis resistance was dramatized. In Cody's company, Dumont played a rebel leader and marksman – his top-billing status alongside the likes of Annie Oakley was due to the fact that he was, genuinely, a rebel. In a letter Martin and Dalpé stumbled upon in their research, the playwrights discovered that Dumont even dreamed of creating his own Wild West show that would tell the story of his people more directly – and theirs, they hope, fulfills that dream in some way.
To date, in Canadian theatre, Dumont's story has largely been staged by the victors, that is English-Canadians, in the styles they want – and the Métis man of action has tended be relegated to the role of sidekick to the man of letters, Riel, whose life, conveniently for a dramatist, ends neatly and tragically.
The first major English-Canadian play on the subject was John Coulter's Louis Riel – which premiered in 1950 at the proto-professional New Play Society in Toronto with Mavor Moore in the title role (and Dumont not even making it in as a character). Riel has hardly left the stage since.
In 1967, Moore would (with Jacques Languirand) write the libretto for composer Harry Somers's centennial opera on the subject, revived last season in Toronto and Ottawa. Since the 1980s, VideoCabaret's Michael Hollingsworth has told and retold the story of Riel in part of his 21-play cycle, The History of the Village of the Small Huts – most recently this summer at Soulpepper in Toronto. And, just last year, playwright Zach Fraser adapted Chester Brown's 2003 graphic novel on Riel into the puppet-filled Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Play in Montreal.
Martin tells me that French Quebeckers have become less passionate about the story of Riel as Catholic influence has waned, and there hasn't been a major play in the province on the subject since the 1970s. He's created this one, in part, so his teenage son knows the history. "The disappearance of the Conservative Party dates to the hanging of Louis Riel – it gave Quebec to the Liberals," he says. "We've forgotten the source of this."
As for Métis or Indigenous dramas on this slice of history, none has been given as prominent a place on a Canadian stage as the collaborative Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont to date. In the rehearsal room, Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont has tried to be as inclusive as the writers' room was. Dominique Pétin – a performer of Wendat and French descent – has taken on the role of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, who, in this show, uses a petition sent from the Métis as toilet paper while dancing around to Nickelback's This Is How You Remind Me. Gabriel Gosselin – a Franco-Manitoban actor – is not exactly walking on eggshells as Riel either, playing him at times like a televangelist in a big purple blazer.
Mani Soleymanlou, a notable playwright himself, is the director – and, being originally from Iran, he feels he's well-suited. "I don't have any of these backgrounds [English, French or Métis] in me," he says. "This distance, this emotional distance, that I have from the story allows me to treat it in a different way."
That Le Wild West Show de Gabriel Dumont might end up mired in controversy despite its creators' best intentions, however, seems to still be a worry. One nervous actor I interviewed at the NAC showed up at our interview with a printed-out list of talking points prepared for him – and consulted it especially closely when the topic turned to cultural appropriation.
What actually led one audience member to revolt on opening night at the Théâtre français, however, was the multilingual nature of the show. A man began shouting profanity at the stage when Don Cherry appeared on stage (played by Dalpé). And, a little later on, during another English-language bit, he walked out of the theatre shouting that the NAC's French theatre should be in French.
This country may be a stew rather than a broth, but for some, seeing and hearing that reality on stage remains taboo.