STRATFORD – Each of the seven women in Tomson Highway’s play The Rez Sisters struggle between dreams of a better life beyond the borders of their small Manitoulin Island community and the strong, often-painful binds that keep them in place.
Having each suffered their own trauma, whether it was the gruesome loss of a lover, a horrific sexual assault or the malignant cancer eating away at one of their own, it’s ultimately their love for one another that keeps their dreams of becoming a singer, reconnecting with a child given away at birth or even just improving their community to forge stronger connections with the outside world firmly rooted to the ground.
And while their love for one another and the support they offer as they deal with their own pain and trauma is what connects and holds them to their island home, money – or, rather, a lack of it – is often the only barrier the women see as keeping them from finding their happiness out in the world somewhere, like many of their children.
In director Jessica Carmichael’s Stratford Festival production of The Rez Sisters, even the slightest glimmer of a chance to overcome that barrier by winning a jackpot of $500,000 at the biggest bingo in the world is enough to reignite those dreams and bring these seven women together to raise enough money to drive to Toronto in hopes that one lucky sister might win the happiness for which they’ve been yearning.
But the story of the women’s journey to Toronto isn’t really what this play is about. It’s about the relationships and interactions between them, the latter of which can be chaotic, contemptuous and even downright mean as they each work through their pain, anger, sadness and grief to lift each other up and push each other forward toward that common goal.
Speaking with one another in ways only people who’ve grown up together as family can get away with, the festival actors portraying each of the women manage to convey that familiarity and depth of understanding family members share, sometimes through just a look or an off-colour joke that cuts to the heart of what drives these characters.
Whether it’s Palajia Patchnose’s (Jani Lauzon) look of disapproval following Philomena Moosetail’s (Tracey Nepinak) choice to buy a new, porcelain toilet with her bingo winnings instead of using the money to find the child she gave away nearly 30 years prior, the clear and deep hurt on Zhaboonigan Peterson’s (Brefny Caribou) face after Emily Dictionary (Kathleen MacLean) joined the other women in teasing her about her intellectual disability, Marie-Adele Starblanket (Lisa Cromerty) coming to terms with the notion her sister, Annie Cook (Nicole Joy-Fraser), may likely take over as mother of her children and partner to her husband after her cervical cancer kills her, or the sheer joy as Veronique St. Pierre (Christine Frederick) describes the 16-pound roast beef she’s cooking using her brand-new stove, the emotions on the faces of the actors during seemingly casual conversations tell much deeper stories.
And those casual conversations also introduce a whole community of characters that, while never seen on stage and sometimes represented simply by empty chairs, are ever-present with every word the women say and every step they take.
Another character whose presence is often sensed by the women on stage, but rarely seen or acknowledged (except when in bird form), is Nanabush (Zach Running Cayote), the Anishinaabe trickster spirit guide who shares in the women’s anguish, anger, joy and laughter. Adorned in plastic feathers – sometimes white, other times black – Nanabush stays with the women, dancing, head-bobbing and helping where they can, from beginning to end.
To the uneducated reviewer, Running Cayote’s traditional dance to Lauzon’s beautiful, yet haunting singing at the end of the play seems like a desperate cry for the recovery of and return to the traditional ways of countless Indigenous cultures lost or nearly lost to colonialism, hatred, ignorance and apathy.
While there is a lot to unwrap from this play – and that’s not a pun on the production’s use of a massive plastic sheet to, at times, represent feelings of suffocation, fear and panic – audience members may be left feeling cheated of a happy ending.
But, as so often is the case for many Indigenous people, there is no happy ending. Life keeps persisting until one day it doesn’t. Until that day, the characters on the stage just have to make the best of it.
It’s up to audience members, like myself, to borrow the lessons learned from The Rez Sisters and use them as a starting point to work toward a better understanding of the Indigenous experience here in Stratford and across North America.