Arts·Point of View

Why it matters who reviews Indigenous theatre

Indigenous theatre has long endured ignorant, dismissive reviews — but the conversation is finally changing.

Indigenous theatre has long endured ignorant, dismissive reviews — but the conversation is finally changing

Yolanda Bonnell in bug. (Gilad Cohen)

I have watched with interest the recent tempest around Yolanda Bonnell's request that her play bug — now playing at Theatre Passe Muraille — not be reviewed by white reviewers, but only by reviewers who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour. As an Indigenous artist who has worked in theatre for 30 years, I can appreciate Yolanda's frustration; I have seen my share of obtuse, ignorant, dismissive reviews. Her commitment to taking up the fight is what's needed to move the discussion forward.

The uneasy relationship between reviewers and Indigenous theatremakers (or anyone else working within an ethnoculturally mandated theatre) is not new, and many artists have attempted to address it in years gone by. What remains the same, then and now, is the sense that we are not being assessed fairly — that the reviewer brings his teachings, his worldview and his lens to view the work, and those things can preclude his viewing of the work in any other way. So often, the reviewer does not review what he sees, but what he wishes he had seen. (And yes, for many years, it was always a he.)

The reviewer has, for a long time, been the gatekeeper, the interlocutor, the conduit between the audience member who has not seen the show and the artist who is inviting them in to participate in the work. (Theatre is participatory; it requires the audience to exist as theatre.) For better or worse, theatre makers have been reliant on the reviewer to help sell their shows.

Sometimes, the power of the reviewer can change the course of history. In 1986, a new play by Cree playwright Tomson Highway was playing to audiences often in the single digits in a hundred-seat house at the Native Canadian Centre. But in its second week, a Toronto reviewer gave the production a great review — and by the end of the run, the show was at capacity and turning away potential attendees. The rest, as they say, is history; The Rez Sisters opened doors for so many of us. I know it changed my life, a halfbreed theatre rat in Winnipeg who saw, for the first time, how we too could use this form to tell our stories our way. Years later, I would travel to Toronto to serve as artistic director at Native Earth, Canada's oldest Indigenous theatre, where Tomson had been before me; this year, 34 years after it was first staged, The Rez Sisters will be produced at the Stratford Festival.

The Rez Sisters will be staged at the Stratford Festival this summer. (Stratford Festival)

But the reviewer's attention is a double-edged sword. In his review of The Rez Sisters, Ray Conologue referred to "Gloria's stolid and monumental face," suggesting it was "as if a pre-Columbian stone carving longed to land on Yonge Street." The attention of the reviewer could shine a light on your production, but could also illuminate the divide between us and them. Gloria Miguel was playing Pelijia Patchnose, a contemporary Indigenous woman; Conologue could only see her as a pre-historic figure. And there lies the divide.

When I was at Native Earth, the staff undertook many initiatives to attempt to bridge that divide — to help the audience, reviewers included, see what we were actually showing them. A study guide sent out to reviewers about Melanie J. Murray's A Very Polite Genocide or the Girl Who Fell to Earth went to great lengths to talk about nomenclature and how First Nations, Métis and Inuit people identified. No matter; when the Toronto Star review appeared, it referred to "the mistreatment of Indians." When Native Earth's marketing director Catherine Hernandez wrote to the Star pointing out that our education guide stated that the use of the word Indian was "archaic and offensive," we were told that that the use of the term was done in compliance with the Star's style guide. More frustrating was the review, which noted that the play was cross-generational and non-linear, but that the reviewer found it "all a little disconnected." His expectations — what he expects theatre to be. In my years in Indigenous theatre, I have worked on many pieces that were cross-generational and non-linear. Trust that we are choosing to tell this story in this way; what do you think that means?

Having this conversation in the public sphere is dangerous and uncomfortable. Still, this change is possible, if we sit together and listen to each other's stories.- Yvette Nolan

These days, has anything changed?

First, theatre practitioners are no longer as dependent on mainstream media reviews as they once were. Word of mouth now travels on the superhighway, and social media can help generate interest in a show, for better or for worse. Second, the discussion is different — and the fact that there actually is a discussion at all is a hopeful sign.

12 years ago, J. Kelly Nestruck reviewed Native Earth's production of Death of a Chief, an all-Indigenous adaptation of Julius Caesar, and a Soulpepper production of Twelfth Night. The header was "Shakespeare Done Right — and Wrong." Guess which one we were? In his recent Globe and Mail column about whether Indigenous playwrights should be allowed to say who gets to review them, Nestruck calls that 2008 review "dismissive." This weekend, the Globe followed up with a column titled "A Cree professor and a white critic went to Yolanda Bonnell's bug. Then, they discussed," in which Nestruck and the Cree scholar Karyn Recollet compared their responses to the play. While Nestruck talked about what he saw in bug — how much of it felt like theatre to him — Recollet focused on how the ceremonial nature of the performance reminded her of our responsibility to hold space for the artist and for each other. While they spoke in different terms, I did not feel that their experience was that different; they were both welcomed into the space, they both witnessed the artist telling her story and they were both moved, which is what theatre is about.

Yolanda Bonnell in bug. (Gilad Cohen)

This article, and much of the press that has happened since Yolanda issued her challenge, has signalled a positive step forward. It suggests that there is a genuine curiosity and openness to learning, and that the reviewers are recognizing their role in facilitating these discussions. I hope that this means they will be more careful in their assessments, and resist the temptation to dismiss what is not immediately identifiable and recognizable to them.

We are not there yet; we must continue to be vigilant. This is just the beginning of a larger conversation about who gets to say what Indigenous theatre is, and by extension, who Indigenous people are. Having this conversation in the public sphere is dangerous and uncomfortable. Since Yolanda was a guest on CBC's q talking about her request, she has been called a bigot, a whore and worse by people who do not want to change the way they perceive Indigenous people. Still, this change is possible, if we sit together and listen to each other's stories.

Theatre is a discussion between an artist and an audience. We have to sit together in the same room and breathe each other's air, witness another's experience and maybe be transformed by it. Whatever barriers exist to that shared experience must be dismantled. Perhaps that time is now.

About the Author

Yvette Nolan is a playwright, director and dramaturg. Born to an Algonquin mother and an Irish immigrant father, she has lived and worked all over Turtle Island. Her works include the plays The Unplugging and Annie Mae's Movement, the dance-opera Bearing and the libretto Shawnadithit. From 2003-2011, she served as Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts. Her book, Medicine Shows, about Indigenous performance in Canada was published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2015. She is an Artistic Associate with Signal Theatre.