When Tomson Highway found success with The Rez Sisters

"One magical night ... the sky burst open and I had my first hit, The Rez Sisters," the playwright told CBC when looking back on his past.

In an early appearance on CBC-TV in 1987, Cree playwright spoke to CBC's Midday

Tomson Highway in Songs in the Key of Cree. (Sean Howard)

Almost 34 years ago, Tomson Highway was a new name and face to CBC viewers.

The Cree playwright, writer, and composer recently spoke to CBC Books about his 2021 memoir Permanent Astonishment, which won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction on Nov. 3.

But back in 1987, Highway's path to literary success had just begun. The Rez Sisters had won that year's Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play and was in the midst of a cross-Canada tour when Highway appeared on CBC's Midday on Dec. 18 that year.

'Mythological, magical element'

Playwright Tomson Highway in 1987

35 years ago
Duration 5:56
The Cree playwright talks to the CBC's Valerie Pringle in 1987 about his stage success with The Rez Sisters..

The play tells the story of seven Ojibway women who travel from their fictional Manitoulin Island reserve to Toronto. The city is hosting the world's biggest bingo tournament, and they want to win the handsome prize. Highway spoke to the CBC's Valerie Pringle from the set of the play, then running at Toronto's Factory Theatre.

"In the context of the way the show happens ... the game awakens the dreams of these women, and just makes them go crazy with these dreams," said Highway.

"We have the mythological, magical element in the show in the presence of the trickster spirit from [Indigenous] mythology," he went on.

In a recent conversation with CBC Books, Highway, who turns 70 this year, looked back on  this moment in his career.

"The first three or four years of my life as a writer, it was trial by fire. It was very, very difficult. I became very, very poor. I was broke," he said. "Then one magical night, I was 36, the sky burst open and I had my first hit, The Rez Sisters." 

During the Midday interview, Pringle displayed a bingo card and asked Highway about the show's incorporation of a real-life game of bingo in which patrons received a bingo card so they could play along with the characters on stage.

"You do get a chance to win a real, genuine, cash prize," said Highway.

He explained why he thought bingo was important for people living on reserves.

"Reservation life has been marked by this tremendous sense of ... boredom, and certainly economic powerlessness, poverty, unemployment," he said. "About the only exciting thing that happens with any degree of regularity ... is the weekly or monthly bingo."

Tomson Highway on his debut novel

24 years ago
Duration 12:07
A profile of author Tomson Highway, on the publication of his first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen.

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