Sunday November 01, 2015

Tomson Highway finds inspiration in one woman's musical laugh

"I'm a very happy man and so I wanted to write about happy things," says Tomson Highway.

"I'm a very happy man and so I wanted to write about happy things," says Tomson Highway.

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Tomson Highway has a lot to celebrate these days.

The accomplished Cree playwright, novelist and music maker has been touring his latest work all over the world. The (Post) Mistress is a one-woman musical about Marie-Louise, a middle-aged mail sorter in small-town Francophone Ontario. 

It's a marked departure from much of his past work, that focuses on the modern indigenous experience in Canada. Plays like, Dry Lips Oughta Move to KapuskasingRose and his critically-acclaimed The Rez Sisters, all explore themes of poverty, dysfunction and even bingo — with a heavy dose of dark humour.

The (Post) Mistress, on the other hand, is upbeat and multilingual, with themes of joy, love and the secrets of life.

"I think a lot of artists suffer from the same situation. You find yourself starting to repeat yourself, playing the same old tune and I got tired of it," Highway says.

(Post) Mistress

A scene from The (Post) Mistress, which was inspired by Tomson's local mail sorter.

Every summer Highway and his partner live in a cabin near the small Francophone village of Noëlville, Ontario. Every day he spends there, he drives or walks down to the local post office to collect his mail. That is where inspiration struck.

"The first thing you hear when you open the door at this post office is this gorgeous laugh, it's like a musical chime in the wind. It's the prettiest laugh I've ever heard," explains Highway. Over the years he's become friends with that mail sorter.

"We chat and hang out and just have a great time. She is an older woman of a certain age and very nice, very kind and so that's where it comes from."

The music, however, was inspired by somebody else — Highway's long-time partner.

"He wanted me to write a country song," laughs Highway. "I said, 'well screw the country song. We're going to do 12 new songs.' [So] on the night of his 60th birthday, we unveiled the 12 songs."

There's another reason this work is a departure for the playwright. Highway says recently his life has taken a different turn, towards happiness. That's what he wants to reflect in his work.

"Native and non-native, we've all gone through our own personal trauma," says Highway.

"I had written about them, and in writing about them I vomited them out. I felt good after that. It's a healing process. I'm a very happy man and so I wanted to write about happy things."