The Unplugging sparks debate by casting non-aboriginal actors in indigenous roles

A play that has non-indigenous actors in roles of indigenous characters is creating controversy and discussion on social media amongst the theatre community across the country.

Playwrights and actors divided on choice made by Toronto theatre company

Allegra Fulton and Diana Belshaw star in Yvette Nolan's play The Unplugging. It runs in Toronto at Factory Theatre until April 5. (Akipari)

A play that has non-indigenous actors in roles of indigenous characters is creating controversy and discussion on social media amongst the theatre community across the country.

The Unplugging runs until April 5 in Toronto. It tells the story of two aging indigenous women who are cast out of their village in a post-apocalyptic world. Through their shared traditional knowledge and friendship, the women have to decide between community and isolation when a young man comes into their lives.
Playwright Yvette Nolan said it was a challenge to find indigenous actors for this production. (Britainy Robinson)

“We talked about the casting, made a list which included not only the indigenous actors ‘of a certain age’ but actors from the larger multicultural community,” said Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan, who made casting decisions along with director Nina Lee Aquino.

“There are not that many. For many reasons — attrition, retirement, fatigue. Many of the women on our list were already working in other shows or in movies or on much bigger projects."

Community backlash

When Columpa C. Bobb, an actor, writer, director and producer, heard about the casting decisions she created a long list of female indigenous actors on her Facebook page. 

“I don't care how talented you are, you will never convince me you are Indian.- Tantoo Cardinal, actress

That started a discussion among the acting elite - including Tantoo Cardinal who was recently selected by ACTRA for the award of excellence.

“I don't care how talented you are, you will never convince me you are Indian. I have not seen a non-Indian actor catch nuance that needs to be there,” said Cardinal in a phone interview.

Cardinal did go to see The Unplugging. She said she felt bad for the actors who are playing the indigenous roles and calls them some of the best in the business.

Tantoo Cardinal of Fort McMurray, Alta was honoured at the Canadian Screen Awards on Sunday. (Nadya Kwandibens, Red Works)
“But the complexity required is knowing something about our communities and our experiences historically,” Cardinal posted in the discussion on
Bobb’s Facebook page afterwards.

“Back in the 70's, our people weren’t trained. There was nobody who had the experience but that’s not an excuse today,” said Cardinal.  

Casting non-indigenous

The play is a co-production between Factory Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts, that bills itself as ‘Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company.’ Ryan Cunningham is the current artistic director for Native Earth.

“We didn’t have the budget to go outside of Toronto, and the local indigenous actors we would have loved to have worked with were unavailable. So we put together what we believe is a strong, talented cast who have great chemistry,” said Cunningham.

“Non-native actors ... do not have the stories in their blood, " says Michelle Thrush. (CBC)
Gemini award winning actress Michelle Thrush, who lives in Calgary, said she was offered a role in Nolan’s play but turned it down citing not enough pay for being away from her daughters for too long. She went on to question whether they tried to cast indigenous actors but could not find any willing to commit the time.

“Non-native actors can say the lines and do the motions but they do not have the stories in their blood. There will always be a much more depth delivered performance by an indigenous person because we carry these stories in our DNA,” said Thrush.

Indigenous playwrights weigh-in

Playwright Ken Williams said his first mainstage production ofThunderstick— which went on to star Cree actor Lorne Cardinal and Anishinabe actor Craig Lauzon — had the same problem in 2002.
Lorne Cardinal and Craig Lauzon starred in a Winnipeg production of Thunderstick. (Liam Richards)

“We had the Isaac role cast but not one of the actors I wanted for Jacob were available. We ended up casting a non-native person for the role,” said Williams.

Drew Hayden Taylor's play, God & the Indian, will be the next Native Earth production. He's had over 70 productions of his work produced by several theatre companies.

 I would rather have a talented and experienced actress bring life to my characters than just somebody with a status card who's never acted.- Drew Hayden Taylor, playwright'

Hayden said that on at least two occasions theatre companies have had to hire non-indigenous actors for his plays.

I would rather have had a Native actress do the role, but as an artist, I would rather have a talented and experienced actress bring life to my characters than just somebody with a status card who's never acted,” said Taylor, who also saw The Unplugging.

Cardinal disagrees. “We’ve had so much of that, of other cultures trying to step in and pretend ‘we’re all human beings here,’” she said, adding “We have to tell our own stories.”

“As the playwright, my job is to get my play out there in the world. What do I do if a producer in Germany or London asks to produce the play? Say no because she doesn't have any indigenous people to cast?” asks Nolan.

Colourblind casting

Cunningham says the company recognizes there is a larger issue being discussed.

“The anger being expressed is reflective of indigenous artists being cast in a particular way in TV, film and theatre.”

In response to the on-going debate surrounding the casting of The Unplugging, Cunningham says Native Earth Performing Arts is hosting a community discussion on March 31 at their theatre.

“The majority of our stages are not using colour/culture blind casting,” said Cunningham. “This means culturally diverse artists are not on stage as much.”

Thrush points out that she has been trying for years to land non-indigenous roles or roles where the cultural background of the character isn’t significant.

“This door always seems to be closely guarded. Why are we held in this limited place and yet the door is swinging open the other way?” Thrush asks.

About the Author

Kim Wheeler

Writer

Kim Wheeler is an Anishinabe/Mohawk. She is a writer and an award-winning producer living in Winnipeg. Her work on the CBC radio series ReVision Quest garnered a New York Festival silver medal and two ImagineNative awards. Wheeler currently works as an associate producer for the CBC Aboriginal Digital Unit and Unreserved on CBC Radio One.