An accurate depiction of conflicting perspectives.
fyi: This week’s blog post is a journalism assignment.
It seems watching a play almost entirely of dialogue can feel a bit more like education than entertainment. Reservations, a Theatre Projects Manitoba production I saw on Tuesday, managed to pack a number of current social issues into a neat couplet of mini plays. It apparently lacked a traditional story arch, disappointing some in the audience, but it still managed to explore a number of narratives in about two hours.
The first act, called Pete’s Reserve, told the story of an old Mennonite farmer in Northern Alberta choosing to give his daughter’s inheritance — his land — to the local Siksika people. He felt morally obligated to make a real gesture towards decolonization in his community. His daughter, who otherwise would have shared the 640 acre inheritance with her brother, begged him not to. She couldn’t understand why this now, wondering if it had to do with his Cree girlfriend. I would say something happened, but nothing really did, other than moral and ethical debate and some personal bonding.
The second act, called Standing Reserve, is named after Heidegger’s philosophy on the essence of technology. The play shows a middle class white foster family navigating the devolution of Child and Family Services. (Note that devolution here means creating CFS agencies run by Indigenous people.) The father is a philosophy professor at the University of Manitoba, and the mother appeared to not have a job, or if she did, it did not appear in the story. Both the CFS worker and the wife are former students of the professor. Some time after a heated discussion between the couple and the worker, the audience is thrown into a university lecture given by the CFS worker that links Heidegger philosophy to indigenous ways of knowing.
Both acts lasted about an hour. Each had three characters, played by the same three actors. Despite lacking a story arch and any kind of conclusion, the performance demonstrated a very timely narrative on the role of settlers in today’s society. The visuals and sounds of the play seemed to act as cues to the audience for shifts in the scene. Though I didn’t understand how it affected me, I found it stimulating and artistic.
Despite the name, Reservations is a play about the experiences of white settlers in Canada coping with history, society and personal morality. Steven Ratzlaff wrote and performed the play, continuing the theme of social issues in his work. He said during the talkback that evening that he consulted with many people from the indigenous community while writing the play. Tracey Nepinak, the indigenous performer of the trio, commended Theatre Projects Manitoba for taking on this piece in the talkback. My classmates later questioned the ability of a white male playwright to write a play about indigenous issues, but the play clearly exposed interpersonal conflict from the settler perspective.
As an activist in Winnipeg’s inner-city, I really enjoyed the play. Ratzlaff managed to neatly elaborate the different perspectives of people in Winnipeg at this time, including those feeling at odds with settler colonialism, those actively earning back their sovereignty, and those experiencing great discomfort at the shifting social climate. I especially enjoyed what struck me as the sad irony of the situation. In the first act, this irony came across in the daughter’s line exclaiming “I feel dispossessed!” as she tried to stop her father from giving the land away. In the second act, it came from the wife in a line towards the end, exclaiming she cannot get over the loss of her foster children.
Through both plays, each actor plays a different character playing the same role. The white woman role is rooted in an perspective of entitlement. In the first act, she says would make best use of the land. In the second, she says could do the best for her children. She can’t seem to understand why another group of people (who have experienced exactly what she’s going through on a grand scale) getting the things she can most suitably use in her life would be okay.
The male actor played the role of the morally conflicted seeking the most immediate path to alleviating his internal conflict. Like his girlfriend said in the play, it wouldn’t make a difference outside of himself, indicating that his decision is based on how it affects him.
The only drawback to what was otherwise a very accurate depiction of general settler perspectives was a noticeably flat representation of gender. The women experienced emotions and engaged with each other based on these emotions (or at least the white woman – the indigenous woman spoke from a place of detached wisdom) and the man orchestrated every interaction by intervening with his complacency and lack of emotion.
There’s lots to talk about with this play, as reflected by all the dialogue in the play. Personally I think art — theatre especially — is a realm for creation pushing past the norm. The play lacked essential storytelling elements, like a protagonist and action. It sacrificed entertainment value for accurate (if not flattened) depictions of personal experiences and roles in Canadian society. It’s worthwhile to have these perspectives shared and understood, but if Ratzlaff wants non-theatre fans to ingest his work with personal interest and desire, he needs to use familiar storytelling form.
I have seen a couple other plays this year, and one called Chimerica comes to mind as an artful merging of story, personal narrative and global political and social experience into an entertaining three-hour performance.
To learn more about the people behind the local production, visit http://www.theatreprojectsmanitoba.ca/wp/shows/reservations/