Huff playwright Cliff Cardinal on solvent abuse: "a scary subculture that nobody wants to talk about"

Cardinal's award-winning 2012 show explores life on the margins

Huff actor/playwright Cliff Cardinal

Cliff Cardinal in a production still from Huff, a play about solvent abuse that he both wrote, and stars in. (Akipari)



Fresh from a three-year stint at Montreal's National Theatre School, Cree playwright Cliff Cardinal returns to Toronto's Native Earth Performing Arts with a remount of his 2012 play Huff, a candid, dark, and often very funny exploration of life on the margins of society. The 30-year-old — who was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and now lives in Toronto — also stars in this one-man show about a young boy and his brothers coping with the aftermath of their mother's suicide.

Originally developed at Native Earth's Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival, Huff is the recipient of the 2012 Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation. Cardinal's previous play, Stitch — his debut, and also a solo performance, about a single mother and webcam-porn worker — premiered at Toronto's SummerWorks festival in 2011 and was featured in Native Earth's 2014-2015 season. Huff runs at Native Earth from Oct. 10-25 before embarking on an eight-city national tour.

We spoke to Cardinal about solvent abuse, finding inspiration in comedy, and smelling bad.  

I didn't realize you were born in the States. This play feels so Canadian.

Well, I have been here for 15 years. Also, I think there's a lot of similarity between the States and Canada.

In what way?

They're both profoundly racist, sexist countries controlled by white men. So I can throw bombs at one, and they both get hit. But I don't really like to get so specific about where a play happens, what nation the kids are from, anything like that.

"To be a little Indian kid in some of these situations... You have to stand there and feel like you're not good enough.  - Cliff Cardinal

Do you consider yourself Canadian or American, or neither?

Neither. I mean, I'm an Indian.

I wonder if that's something that came to you as an adult or if you always felt that way.

I think I've felt like that since I started listening to George Carlin when I was thirteen.

Has he been an influence on your writing?

Oh, huge. I feel so much courage because a guy like him was around to really laugh in the face of everything that's evil about our society. And the other big influence on the performance and writing style is Richard Pryor. The way Richard Pryor would animate absolutely anything — he would animate the car that got shot, or the monkey, or the dog, you know?

What is the seed of this play? What inspired you to write it?

I wrote a short story called "Huff" in I think 2005. First Nations kids who abuse solvents — that's such a scary subculture that nobody wants to talk about, but everyone is fascinated by it.

The very first line seems to be addressed to the audience, and later there's a scene in which the stage directions call for tomato juice to be splashed into the audience. What was your intention with those confrontational moments in the script?

Well, the cool thing about the tomatoes is that they replicate shame. When your clothes are covered in tomatoes, or when you smell bad, you are automatically apologizing for who you are. And that's what it's like to be a little Indian kid in some of these situations. You have to stand there and feel like you're not good enough. I'm honoring the characters of these mischievous little boys, and they've got tons of hope and tons of love, but also, they're little shits. They're fighting for who they are. I wanted to do a show that they would want to do. So it's like, yeah, you know what, let's splash the audience with tomatoes. Let's hit these white people with tomatoes, man.

Right from the beginning, trickster plays a big role in Huff. What does trickster mean for you?

Trickster is about the spirit of unpredictability. Real life is completely an uncontrollable force, and trickster kind of represents that for me.

Huff playwright Cliff Cardinal

Your last play, your debut, was also a one-person show. What is it about a single actor onstage that appeals to you?

I think it's about the complexity of the stories. A lot of things happen and they happen in a lot of different locations. But that's in retrospect, because when I started writing Stitch I was 22 or something like that. I was just fucking around. A lot of people would read that, or Huff, and they would think I'm fucking illiterate, in terms of the world of the theatre. But it works. We made it work.

Why would they think you're illiterate?

They're solo shows with tons of different characters in them. It's not a style that a lot of people really like or take seriously. But I really like it. Should I be telling a first-person story about a woman who works in porn? Probably not. But I am. I can't stop. I was compelled to do it and I finished it.

Native Earth Performing Arts presents Huff. Written by and starring Cliff Cardinal. Directed by Karin Randoja. Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas E., Toronto. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sun 2pm. $15-$30 online or via 416-531-1402 ; PWYC Tuesday, previews.

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