Comedy the vehicle for sensitive racial topics in new Saskatoon play
Native Studies 101 is the latest Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre production and opens on March 7
A group of young aspiring Indigenous actors are ready to showcase their production, Native Studies 101, in Saskatoon.
The Gordon Tootoosis Nikaniwin Theatre production is set in a Native Studies classroom that's taught by a non-Indigenous person.
Playwright Dakota Ray Hebert was raised in Meadow Lake and now travels the country as an actor and stand-up comedian.
Hebert didn't take Native Studies as a course, but she had heard from people who did that it was predominantly taught by non-Indigenous people.
"I kind of find that interesting," Hebert told CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend. "You can learn a lot of things but there's always going to be a disconnect, and that's kind of what this play is about."
Hebert said the teacher's intentions are good, but the information she has is "a bit wrong."
She said the class features Indigenous kids who correct the teacher along the way, and the audience is along for the ride.
"I think people come to theatre to learn things and feel things and experience things. And so Native Studies 101 is a way for them to come and enjoy themselves and have some laughs and have some (learning)," Hebert
Addressing real issues in a fun way
"A Nakota, a Dene, a Cree and a Métis walk into a Native Studies Class being taught by a Settler teacher," is how the play is described.
It sounds like the start of a joke, and that may be because Hebert approaches writing with a mix of comedy and commentary.
She said she feels as though many people look at Indigenous people as victims.
"Laughter is medicine, sugar makes medicine go down. Having some laughter, having some comedy, I think, is a great way for people to learn," Hebert said. "There's no finger-pointing or victim blaming or victimization either."
The play comes from Hebert's own experiences growing up off-reserve with her "cowboy dad," who didn't know much about the Dene culture.
She has since learned some of her own culture and, since moving to Treaty 6 territory, some Cree culture.
Participation aides in cultural reconnection: actor
Nitannis Bear is a Cree woman from Mistawasis. In the play, her character is simply named "Cree."
She said during script readings, the character stood out to her as someone who grew up steeped in their culture — something Bear was not.
"I had to take a lot of time to really connect with my culture as well. It's a work in progress," she said.
Bear said participating in Native Studies 101 has "done a lot of amazing things" for her in terms of who she is.
"To get into this theatre company that's devoted to Indigenous people, and just tapping into the Indigenous talent, it's very under-represented," she said.
The group doesn't take themselves too seriously during rehearsal, and Bear said she loves being around Indigenous humour.
"I was doubting myself a lot when I first got into the theatre group because I don't consider myself an actor, but being pushed out of my comfort zone a lot, and I've grown because of that," Bear said.
Exploring new roles
Hebert has taken on writing, directing and mentoring during the creation of Native Studies 101.
"It's been terrifying, but it's been an incredible learning experience," she said. "I've written plays before and other things, I write my own stand-up, but this was my first-ever commissioned play."
Directing was also a new role for Hebert, but she said she learned to adapt to the role in the plays creation.
She noted there have been several powerful personal discoveries in the process for those acting under her.
"I understand now why directors want to be directors, because it's really fun when you see those things happen," Hebert said.
"At first I was like 'oh my God, I don't know if I want to do this again,' but the youth, they're so talented, and we have so much fun together, and it's a really rewarding project."
Native Studies 101 hosts its first performance on March 7.
with files from CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend