Manitoba·Review

Ian Ross's new play tackles colonialism, reconciliation with absurdism and wit

A Governor General's Award-winning playwright tackles the history of Canada, colonialism and the path to reconciliation — or to destruction — with humour, a sense of the absurd and a sometimes surprising, though justified, anger in The Third Colour.

The Third Colour marks a welcome return to the professional stage for GG Award-winning Winnipeg playwright

Kathleen MacLean and Tracey Nepinak perform Prairie Theatre Exchange's world premiere of The Third Colour. Ian Ross's play asks provocative questions about Canada's history and how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people move forward — but offers no easy answers. (Leif Norman/Prairie Theatre Exchange)

There's no audience participation in the strictest sense in Ian Ross's new play.

It is, though, a play that insists its audience is part of its story — for better and for worse — and it doesn't always let us off the hook easily.

Nor should it, when its subject matter is the history of Canada, colonialism and the path to reconciliation — or to destruction.

Ross tackles that with humour, a sense of the absurd and a sometimes surprising — though justified — anger in The Third Colour, a world premiere and the opening of the first season at Prairie Theatre Exchange programmed entirely by new artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones.

The play, which PTE describes accurately as "absurdist dramedy," marks a welcome return to the professional stage for Ross. The Winnipeg-based Indigenous playwright won a Governor General's Award in 1997 for fareWel, and is well remembered by longtime CBC Radio listeners as Joe from Winnipeg. He stepped away from professional playwriting over the last several years to, as he says in his program notes, "live life and find the story I really wanted to tell."

MacLean and Nepinak deliver spirited and sharp performances, mining comedy from how they play off each other. (Leif Norman/Prairie Theatre Exchange)

That story centres around Agatu (Tracey Nepinak) and Head Full of Lice (Kathleen MacLean), who find themselves quite literally in the dark at the start of the play.

These two are, it seems, ancient spirits who have been reborn repeatedly — this time, as two Indigenous women. With each rebirth, the two must relearn everything from their own names to basic vocabulary.

They also relearn, and relate to each other through allegorical tales, the history of the land where they find themselves.

This gives the play a weird absurdist bent, but beneath it is the familiar and often disheartening story of Canada's past. Think, perhaps, what would have happened if Samuel Beckett wrote Canada: A People's History.

Which is not to say that it's without humour — far from it. There's great physical comedy and clowning (the two characters don party hats to play out the French-English conflict in pre-Confederation Canada as a slow-motion fistfight) to amusing wordplay (their struggles to remember the names of everything from a needle to a boat makes for some goofy laughs).

Ross tackles heavy themes with with humour, a sense of the absurd and a sometimes surprising — though justified — anger. (Leif Norman/Prairie Theatre Exchange)

There's also a playfulness in the characters and — particularly in Agatu — a sense of the trickster, which Nepinak and MacLean capture marvellously. Their performances are both spirited and sharp, and they play off each other beautifully in Thomas Morgan Jones's polished production, which moves smartly over a lean 80 minutes.

They also poke fun at us as the (let's be honest, mostly white) audience — sometimes cheekily calling us "the dummies," but also, on a more serious note, referring to "the ones that belong to this story, but only know the parts they like."

That's where The Third Colour truly engages — not just relating the story of what has happened, but also of what might have been and what could be.

Ian Ross discusses The Third Colour with Information Radio's Marcy Markusa:

A new play by award-winning Indigenous playwright Ian Ross makes its debut at Prairie Theatre Exchange. Ian joins Marcy Markusa to explain why he chose to tell it through the eyes of two spirits in female form. 7:05

Canada is a country, The Third Colour reminds us, built on its First Nations — a fact underscored by Andrew Moro's imposing set.

A teepee-shaped structure, solid like a mountain, stretches up. Atop sits a triangle, like the inverted roof of a house, with an opaque window. Behind that window, we hear laughter and what sounds like a party — the privileged in Canadian society enjoying life, while the Indigenous people without whom that society wouldn't exist linger outside, wondering how to move ahead.

Andrew Moro's set, centred around a teepee-shaped structure, underscores one of the play's themes: that Canada is a country built on its First Nations. (Leif Norman/Prairie Theatre Exchange)

How do we bridge the two worlds? Or should we? Is it better, Head Full of Lice asks, to burn it all down and start fresh? Or can we, as Agatu believes, reconcile?

As in the real world, there are no easy answers in this play.

No, you won't have to get up on stage, but The Third Colour demands participation in self-examination from its audience, and richly rewards us with a fresh, engaging and timely tale.

The Third Colour runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Oct. 20.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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