Greenland stages famous Canadian play 'The Rez Sisters'

The National Theatre of Greenland is preparing to stage the biggest production in the country's history — a Greenlandic translation of a classic of Canadian theatre, Tomson Highway's 'The Rez Sisters.'

'This play is very universal but especially for us indigenous people,' says Greenlandic actress

Cast members in rehearsal for The Rez Sisters at the National Theatre in Nuuk, Greenland. The play marks the largest production ever staged in the Arctic capital. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

The National Theatre of Greenland is drawing on the work of a Canadian to launch the biggest professional production the Arctic country has ever seen.

This spring, the company will debut a Greenlandic translation of Tomson Highway's iconic play, The Rez Sisters.

"It's totally perfect," says Makka Kleist, who in addition to being one of the performers in the show is also the head of the country's first theatre school. "The setting and the characters... it's totally recognizable."

There's never been eight professional actors on stage at the same time in Greenland Kleist says, let alone seven women. 

Kleist knows the play well. She lived in Canada and worked closely with Tomson in the 1980s.

"This play is very universal but especially for us indigenous people. It's very close to us." 

The play follows seven indigenous women from a small reserve as they journey to attend the largest bingo in the world, leaving their community for the big city. Nobody wins, but the journey is filled with spirit and humour.

'I can recognize myself and my family'

"I see many people, I can recognize people," says actress Majbrett Bech, who says the play resonates on many levels.

Asked why, she laughs and says the first thing that comes to mind is the drinking, though there are other connections. "I can recognize myself and my family in Denmark who try to be Danish." 

"There are many similarities between natives in Canada and here," says actress Kimmernaq Kjeldsen.

She says it helps the cast to get into their characters to understand their problems and their dreams. "It's very rough but there's a lot of love in it too."

Shared colonial history

For Canadian director Patti Shaughnessy — who's from the Curve Lake First Nation northeast of Peterborough — it's the shared historical experience of colonization that makes the play so relatable.

"Denmark colonized Greenland, very similar to Canada in a way, but the difference here is that the Greenlandic language is so strong and that may be because it's so isolated and there's only one language here." 

The company spent a month translating the original text into Greenlandic — an Inuit language closely related to the Inuktitut spoken in Nunavut. 

Shaughnessy doesn't speak the language, but follows along with the English text. "It's an interesting process to work like this," she says noting Tomson's work reads like a musical score. 

The show is still in rehearsals and will open in June.

Kjeldsen, for one, thinks the Greenlandic audience will share in the laughs.

"And then they will recognize many things and then maybe also how similar we are to our fellow indigenous people in Canada."

About the Author

Cheryl Kawaja

Cheryl Kawaja is a CBC North reporter based in Whitehorse.