Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Most of you who are reading this review, and will see Drew Hayden Taylor’s new play, Cottagers and Indians, at the Tarragon Extraspace, are probably closer to “cottagers” (or “settlers”) than to “Indians,” although I hope Indigenous people also see this play, inspired by actual people and events. Taylor, an Anishnaabe, was born, grew up, and lives on Curve Lake Reserve, near Peterborough. He writes in a variety of genres – novels and short stories, plays, television scripts. His work is comedic – but comedy used to spotlight the truth about difficult situations, usually about Indigenous characters and their dealings with “the rest of Canada,” to borrow a phrase. photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
He has said, “Humour is the WD-40® of healing”; he wants to find the humour in fraught situations, rather than focus on bleakness and violence.
The play, commissioned by Richard Rose, Artistic Director of the Tarragon, is based on the efforts by James Whetung, an Anishnaabe man from Curve Lake, to plant wild rice (manoomin) – a traditional Indigenous food grain – in a group of Kawartha lakes, and the efforts by a group of cottagers to stop this project, protesting that the marshy plant growth spoils their use of the lake for swimming and other recreation – and brings down property values.
Hayden has created two fictional characters to represent these two points of view, this clash of cultures and history: an Anishinaabe man, Arthur Copper, portrayed with great vitality and humanity by Herbie Barnes (Anishnaabe from Aundeck Omni Kaning on Manitoulin Island), and a woman cottage-owner, Maureen Poole, played with crisp aplomb by Tracey Hoyt. Maureen says that she sympathizes with Indigenous people – “but why do you have to do it on our lake?” Arthur replies that this is a case of “NIMBLY – not on my back lake!” Patti Shaughnessy’s expert direction highlights the interplay between the characters, their tension and their attempts at communication; she lets them speak clearly for themselves. (Shaughnessy, also Anishinaabe, has worked for the past five years with the National Theatre of Greenland).
Robin Fisher’s set shows how each character has their “territory” – Arthur in his canoe at the lake’s edge, surrounded by wild rice plants, Maureen on her cottage deck, with barbecue and Muskoka chair. Behind them both, showing their common but contested environment, is a painted backdrop of lake and sky, its blues and pinks shifting in tone through Nick Andison’s effective lighting. Beau Dixon’s sound design provides atmosphere, from the ripples of the lake to Arthur’s mechanical harvester. Jonathan Taylor, from Curve Lake, was Anishnaabe language coach for the production.
The play opens with Arthur in his canoe, smelling the air: “Sometimes I think I could paddle this entire lake with my eyes closed. Just by my nose…” Then we meet Maureen, who tells us about her love of the lake since she and her husband first bought their cottage, when their now-adult children were young. So begins the battle of a ‘Cottager’ versus an ‘Indian’: what is their relationship to the lake and the land, whose history matters more, and which is the more invasive species – the wild rice, or the Torontonians who “drive…from their home in a city bordering on a huge lake, to spend time and money on another home, bordering on a smaller lake”?
Arthur tells about the high nutrition value of manoomin, which sustained people in the past and could help nurture people today, restoring their heritage as well as their food source. He recalls harvesting wild rice by hand, in his canoe, but in the interest of efficiency, he now uses a loud air-boat to do the harvesting – which irks Maureen and other cottagers even more. As the action goes on, we see that both Maureen and Arthur have their own personal griefs, which makes them more committed to their cause but also creates a human bond between them. Not enough for reconciliation, but perhaps enough for beginning the process. The humour, and the underlying emotion, help us understand both characters’ ways of looking at the world. For this reviewer, Arthur is the more sympathetic, even more “real,” character, while Maureen seems more like a caricature – but we know that her point of view definitely exists in current Canadian society. Congratulations to the Tarragon for commissioning and presenting an important play about an issue which affects us all.
Cottagers and Indians plays at the Tarragon Extraspace through March 25th.