Day 6·Q&A

Cree writer Kenneth T. Williams spins a tale of prophecy, purity and identity in his new play, The Herd

In his new play, The Herd, Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams explores Indigenous identity and spirituality through a story of two white buffalo calves.

'It's about hope, but it's also about the fear of not being ready for when the most hopeful thing ... happens'

The Herd, a new play by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, opened last month at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. Todd Houseman, left, plays Coyote Jackson, a blogger who documents the birth of white buffalo calves. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre)

In his new play, The Herd, Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams explores Indigenous identity and spirituality through a story of two white buffalo calves.

"Whenever you hear about white buffalo calves being born, Indigenous people get very, very excited about this and [it's] almost like they gasp for a minute and hold their breath," said Williams, who is also an associate professor of drama at the University of Alberta. 

In Lakota teachings, the birth of a white buffalo calf is a symbol of hope. "To give you like a close approximation, it would be similar, I guess, in a Christian context to the second coming [of Jesus]," he said.

And while Williams says his play isn't about the prophecy, that story is at the heart of The Herd. 

The play, which runs until June 12, 2022, at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, blends questions about purity and identity with the ethics of science and corporate profiteering. 

Here is part of Williams's conversation. 

The play itself isn't a retelling of this prophecy. There is a lot more going on here. It's a very complex narrative. What is the basic storyline of The Herd

I had this story idea from a long time [ago].... I hadn't really done anything with it. I just wrote it out. But the essence is: what would happen if we could make white buffalo be born just by asking for them through genetic manipulation?

What I did was I took that idea and I transposed it into this play where my main character, Vanessa Brokenhorn, who's a veterinarian and a geneticist from a small First Nation in Saskatchewan, [is] responsible for taking care of a commercial herd of bison that has ... domestic cattle DNA mixed in with it. 

Kenneth T. Williams is a Cree playwright and assistant professor of drama at University of Alberta. (Aloys Fleischmann)

So she's breeding out the domestic cattle DNA, but a mutation happens and ... white buffalo calves are born. And people are going, "Oh my God, could this be the sign of the prophecy?" 

I look at the question of what happens when the potential for us to actually do this on purpose happens. What is the dramatic effect to our culture, to science, to spirituality, and then also to the commercial possibilities that this will obviously raise in other people? So that's the drama. That's what's happening in the play.

I think that's so interesting, this relationship between the scientific and the spiritual, the sacred and the discovery, what is manipulated and what is pure. How does that science and spirituality relationship play out in The Herd?

It makes people question both. I wanted to put a person on stage who should be an elder but isn't, and she has kind of shunned her responsibilities. So, again, looking at what's dramatic and I went, you know what? There are a lot of our people who don't know what to do in the event this happens. They don't know what their responsibilities really are.

I wanted to make that a dramatic character -- someone who has to discover, "Oh, my God, I was supposed to be ready for this and I'm not," and what they have to do to sort of confront that. 

But on the science side, too, it's like, do we have a responsibility to honour Indigenous people's beliefs if say we could do this on a scale that is capable of serving restaurants and burger franchises and stuff like that. Should scientists be allowed to create a white buffalo for commercial reasons? And that to me is another important question.

The Herd explores questions around spirituality, science and profit. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre)

But there's another complication of the modern world that creeps in here: the internet and social media [are] a big part of the story that you're telling in The Herd. Can you explain how?

I have a character whose name is Coyote Jackson and he's a blogger who is the only one who's paying attention to the birth of the cows at first. And he's sort of hyping up that this is indeed the sign of the prophecy and that a big change is going to come. 

He wants access, and he wants to promote it, and he wants to bring people to the reserve to come and witness this — the miracle of these twin white bison calves. And this gets out of control and it's like a fire breaking out. Suddenly it's a bush fire. 

Now we don't know what to do — again. Now the question [is] what happens when you can get immediate gratification in seeing a miracle, right? Miracle on demand.

The Coyote Jackson character has a moment where his Indigenous identity or purity is questioned. Why did that become such an important part of the story for you to tell?

It wasn't something I was actually focusing on at all. It just seemed to tie into the whole issue of what is a pure bison and challenging the idea of what purity is. 

And, also, a lot of Indigenous people are now looking at other people who are claiming to be Indigenous and going, "OK, hang on a second. What is your Indigenous connection? Who are you? Where do you belong?" That's a huge question that's happening within our communities as well. 

It's a secondary, kind of, parallel story that runs along with the play.

So as people are sitting there, they come to the end of this play, they're about to walk out of the theatre. What is it that you want them to take away with them? 

I want them to take away the idea they want to come back and see it again.

The Herd runs until June 12, 2022 at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre)

Well, you'd have to. It's a complex story.

This is probably unique for me in terms of plays I've written. It's not centred on any kind of trauma. This is a play that's centred around a community that's going, "Oh, my God, something important is happening here and we got to respond." 

So it's about hope, but it's also about the fear of not being ready for when the most hopeful thing you've been hoping for happens, right? 

I'm following a little bit of Kim Harvey, who wrote Kamloopa. She wrote this kind of manifesto for Indigenous playwrights and she went, "No crying, no dying." It's something I embrace a little bit in this play. 

I believe that one, no, we cannot ignore the trauma of what's happening. We still have to explore those stories. But two, I want to grow myself as an artist and also help other Indigenous artists grow. There's a wide range of topics that our communities are struggling with and also embracing, so let's share those as well.

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview produced by Pedro Sanchez. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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