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Playwright Explores Identity Through Family
Friday, April 04 2014
 
Written by Jamie Keith,
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playwright explores identity through family.jpg“In a World Created by a Drunken God” made its United States premiere at Mixed Blood Theater's “Seconds: A Festival of Readings” on March 15 and 16. The play, written by Canadian playwright, novelist and filmmaker Drew Hayden Taylor, was nominated for the Governor General's Award and was produced in Canada four times since it was published in 2004.

“This particular story is a 'what if' in my life,” Taylor said. “I grew up on a reserve with my mother's family – I'm half Ojibwe. My white half took off before I was born – I never knew him. So one day, I thought wouldn't it be interesting, wouldn't it be bizarre, if there was a knock at my door and it was a family member from my father's family that I never knew existed or cared about telling me that our father is dying from chronic renal failure and needs a kidney?”

“In a World Created by a Drunken God” was directed by Bill Partlan and starred Jake Waid as Ojibwe character Jason Pierce and Skyler Nowinski as his white half-brother Harry Dieter. Over the course of the play, Jason grapples with the dilemma of whether or not he will give his absent father one of his kidneys. As Harry tries to convince Jason to give their father the transplant, the two men share stories about their lives. The play touches on themes of identity, biology and the complexity of family relationships.

“It's basically a discussion about – what are the obligations, if you are in such a situation?” Taylor said. “Do those few strands of DNA make you responsible for his life? Or does the fact that he's a complete stranger for all intents and purposes mean you have no obligations? It deals with the moral implications of that.”

As part of the festival, In a World Created by a Drunken God was put on after only six days of rehearsal with minimal, set, costume, and lighting design.

“What we're doing now is what I refer to as a showcase production or a workshop,” the playwright said. “It's just bare bones production, basically an opportunity for people to see what it looks like on its feet.”

“Seconds: A Festival of Play Readings” features plays that have been produced at least once before. In addition to “In a World Created by a Drunken God,” the festival showcased the musical “Cloudlands” by Octavio Solis and Adam Gwon, “Sheddin'” by Thomas W. Jones, II and “The Sun Serpent” by Jose Cruz Gonzalez. The festival aims to introduce these plays to a broader audience, including artistic directors who may want to make them into full-scale productions in the future.

According to a statement by Mixed Blood Theater's artistic director Jack Reuler, “so often that world premiere that wasn't quite done ends the play's life after its initial run despite authors who believe that the best is yet to come. Seconds is our response to that conundrum: allowing these plays that have had that lone … production to get that further development, be seen by audiences and artistic leaders, and get the chance to be tomorrow's classic.”

Taylor is interested in sharing his work with American audiences to highlight the success Native theater has experienced in Canada.

“In Canada, Native theater is very well-established – it is part of the mainstream Canadian theater community, whereas in the States, I think it's still considered odd, unusual, not really fully understood or predominant,” Taylor said. “There are many theater companies in Canada that have the production of one Native play in their mandate.”

The playwright said that the “contemporary Native theatrical Renaissance” in Canada began in 1986 with the production of Tomson Highway's play “The Rez Sisters.”

“That basically blew the doors open in the larger Canadian theatrical community and made it possible for Native people to stand up and tell their stories,” he said. “It became almost the genre of choice for expression, because most Native people come from an oral culture, and theater is using your mind, your body and your voice to tell a story.”

Taylor believes that theater is a natural mode of expression for many Indigenous people because of its link to oral traditions.

“One of the reasons I think theater is so successful in Canada is that it's the next logical progression in oral storytelling,” he said. “I think it's just another way of embracing storytelling and taking it to the next level. We've gone from telling stories around the campfire to telling stories on the stage, the page, and the screen.”

He believes that the vibrant Native theater movement represents an evolution in Indigenous modes of storytelling. playwright explores identity through family 2.jpg

“Culture is constantly evolving – anything that doesn't evolve stagnates, dies. So, as Native people, our culture has to evolve and embrace all the new technologies and all the new ways of expressing and telling our stories – it's an organic progression,” Taylor said. “I remember having a conversation once with a traditional storyteller on Manitoba Island and she said that we need new stories as much as we need the old stories.”

Taylor often doesn't focus on broad themes or overall take-aways for the audiences of his plays, but rather focuses on the art of storytelling.

“My whole philosophy as a writer is tell an interesting story with interesting characters that take the audience on an interesting journey. That is the basis of my entire career,” he said. “When an audience comes to see my work, I just want them to have a good time. If it's a comedy, I want them to laugh and learn to appreciate the aboriginal sense of humor, because in many cases the dominant culture seems unaware of Native people in general and the fact that Native people have a marvelously developed sense of humor.”

Taylor sees humor as an essential part of what he calls “Indigeneity.”

“I consider the aboriginal experience to be one that's a combination of tragedy and comedy. It's my firm belief that it's our sense of humor that has allowed us to survive 500 years of colonization.”

Aside from “Seconds: A Festival of Play Readings,” Taylor is currently working on a musical for the Charlottetown Festival that will merge science-fiction, fantasy and ecology. In addition to currently writing several other science-fiction short stories, he is in the process of editing a book called “Me Artsy,” “about the aboriginal artistic spirit.”

“It's a series of essays by a group of Native artists, everything from traditional drumming to contemporary installation art, clothing design, acting and filmmaking,” Taylor said. “They're writing about how their aboriginal heritage has influenced the art that they're practicing.”

Taylor anticipates that “Me Artsy” will be published within the coming year.


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