I can never see or read a play by Canadian Cree dramatist Tomson Highway without thinking of the Russian master Nikolai Gogol. Not the Gogol of The Inspector General and The Overcoat, necessarily, but the one who penned inimitable folk tales like The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich-simultaneously one of the funniest and one of the saddest stories ever written. Like Gogol, Highway creates broad comic characters with super-sized personalities, and his writing is just as likely to begin with a belly laugh and end with a sob.
Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout, originally produced in 2004 by the Western Canada Theatre of Kamloops, B.C., is a historical play about the grievances of the indigenous people of the Thompson River Valley, as laid out in a deposition presented by their chiefs to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1910. Nothing funny about that, and yet Highways tone, right up until the end, is frequently hilarious. He approaches the subject via four First Nations women of various ages who are preparing the banquet to accompany the Great Big Kahoonas (Lauriers) visit to Kamloops-a quartet of bickering, bantering females who might well be ancestors to the characters of Highways landmark play The Rez Sisters. And he gives the story a fresh, contemporary feel by rendering the womens Shuswap dialogue in a colloquial, often anachronistic modern English that can be by turns garrulous, eloquent, or playfully ribald (much is made of the Big Kahoona being served a flesh-and-fowl dinner of beaver and tits).
Highway uses comedy as leavening for this sadly familiar tale of stolen land, with the steady encroachment of English settlers upon rivers, pastures and mountains becoming almost a running gag. In the end, however, tragedy wins out: revelations of racial hatred and violence surface; the youngest of the women, mentally unstable, seeks to abort the half-white child she is carrying; and the recited text of the chiefs litany of grievances, the Laurier Memorial, begins to supplant the boisterous mood. Still, the play closes on a defiant note-with a sense of aboriginal resilience and endurance, due no doubt in part to that ability to laugh in the face of woe. Martin Morrow
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
"The play is both laugh-out-loud funny and a precarious high-wire act
A flawless production
-- Globe & Mail
About the Author
Tomson Highway<br />Tomson Highway was born near Maria Lake, Manitoba in 1951. Living a nomadic lifestyle with no access to books, television or radio, Highway's parents would tell their children stories, kindling Highway's life-long interest in the oral tradition of storytelling.<br /><br />Tomson Highway is widely recognized for his tremendous contribution to the development of Aboriginal theatre in both Canada and around the world.<br /><br />In 1994, he was inducted into the Order of Canada, the first Aboriginal writer to be so honoured.