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When: To May 1
Where: Firehall Arts Center
Tickets & Info: Pay What You Will at firehallartscentre.ca
Indigenous actor and activist Taran Kootenhayoo’s new play, White Noise, has had a particularly rough journey en route to its premiere. Originally scheduled to open in 2020 at the Firehall, it was delayed by the pandemic. Then, a few months ago, Kootenhayoo died suddenly at age 27.
Produced by Savage Society and the Firehall, and directed by Renae Morriseau, the play is billed as “a curious comedy” about attempts at reconciliation across the yawning chasm between Canadian First Nations and white settler culture. The generational divide also looms large in the two families whose meeting around a dinner table generates comic sparks and some serious food for thought.
When we first meet the Indigenous family at home in Alberta’s Treaty 6 territory, mom Tse’kwi (Columpa Bobb) and dad Deneyu (Sam Bob) are reading a book called How to Deal with White People. They get their chance to do just that when Son Windwalker (Braiden Houle) receives a fat check from Microsoft for an app he’s developed, and they move to a house in West Point Gray next door to the Mannings.
That well-off white family lives in twenty-first century sheltered ignorance. Teen daughter Jessika (Anais West) tells her parents about the truth and reconciliation lesson she learned at school. “We suck” is her pithy conclusion, but it’s a whole new concept for life coach dad Jason (Mike Wasko) and her mom Ashley (Anita Wittenberg). To learn more, they invite their new neighbors for dinner.
The cultural differences between the families appear stark. Wary but relaxed, the Indigenous characters seem comfortable in their own skin. Sam Bob plays Deneyu as a joker, a compulsive clown, while the Mannings take themselves ultra-seriously. The first interactions are awkward but at least civil.
The civility doesn’t last long as Tse’kwi and Jason are soon at each other, trading accusations of white privilege vs. First Nations tax advantages and a host of other familiar arguments on both sides.
Might the kids break the impasse? Windwalker seems like a surrogate for the playwright. More serious than his father and more open-minded than his mother, he is a quiet comic genius with visions of spirit animals. the online game that made him rich features eagles. You score points when your eagle poops on famous people’s heads.
He hits it off with Jessika, who regularly lectures her parents on their politically incorrect behaviour. But her ultimate concern for her is getting a hundred thousand followers on Instagram. Real life, to her, is an exotic concept. The play’s most powerful moment occurs when Ella Windwalker’s appearance on her Instagram feed generates dozens of vicious racist comments. Don’t worry, he reassures her. He’s used to it.
Set designer Lauchlin Johnston’s beautiful backdrop of blue fragmented triangles and Candelario Andrade’s sublime projections of the natural world that flow across it somehow feel like objective correlatives of the truth and reconciliation that the characters seem constitutionally unable to imagine, much less achieve.
Kootenhayoo leaves the final judgment to the caricatured Ashley, whose dawning awareness opens a small crack in her blindness at the end. “Things,” she concludes, “are not OK.”
The Canadian News
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