Canada's three largest human exports to the United States? Easy. Hockey players, comedians and native playwrights. That's why I found myself on a cold January morning making my way through the narrow streets of Providence, Rhode Island, to see a public reading of my play The Buz'Gem Blues. It was being featured in the second annual Theatre From The Four Directions Festival, hosted by the Trinity Repertory Theatre, one of the five largest rep companies in America, with an annual budget of $7.6 million.
Representatives from theatres and educational institutions in America's Northeast came to the sold-out festival to check out this strange animal called native theatre. Aboriginal involvement in live drama is not entirely unknown in the U.S. American Indian writers like Diane Glancy, William Yellow Robe Jr. and Hanay Geiogamah have been plying their artistic wares for years in a country where many are unaware that native people are still alive, let alone that they have anything interesting to say onstage.
"People think they're extinct,' says Randy Reinholz, artistic director of Native Voices, centred in San Diego and Los Angeles. He discovered that sad reality when the Gene Autry Heritage Museum in L.A. did a survey of public perceptions during the company's run of Canuck playwright Marie Clements's Urban Tattoo a few years back. "The idea of native theatre is really way out there. It's kind of an esoteric thing,' he tells me.
But it's getting a boost from north of the border, where we take for granted that public policy must endorse minority culture -- something American First Nation theatre types envy us for.
"In the U.S. there is much less sophistication about culture and the idea that government should be involved with an ongoing investment in it,' says Oskr Eustis, artistic director of Rhode Island's Trinity Rep. "Any group that doesn't have financial resources or critical mass has a tougher time finding a voice. As a result, we haven't got a movement here yet. I look at Tomson Highway's breakthrough plays in the mid-80s and how they seemed to catalyze Canadian native drama. We haven't had that founding bomb go off.'
The bomb may be ticking in the U.S., but it's still mostly Canuck. Reinholz's Native Voices, launched in 1993, has workshopped and presented 24 scripts so far, about half of which are by Canadian playwrights. This isn't going unnoticed.
Reinholz's board of directors has been heard to complain about the high percentage of Canadians this Yankee organization is supporting. I've heard the same murmurings myself. On my second visit to the Edward Albee Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska (I twice won first prize in the Alaska Native Plays Contest), one of the organizers told me rules for the competition were going to be changed because some higher-up had asked with irritation, "Are we just going to become a dumping ground for Canadian Indian playwrights?'
"Canadian native writers have a longer history of combining storytelling with contemporary theatre,' says Reinholz. "It's part of the mainstream. There's also a deeper talent pool, both in acting and directing and I bet in designing and stage managing, too.'
The end result of this theatrical influx? Who knows? It might end up being just a momentary blip on the scope or it might actually develop into a legitimate trend. It's too early to say.
After Rhode Island, I saddled up my pony and rode to the next logical stop on my itinerary: New York City's Broadway. As expected, there was nary a native play to be seen anywhere. Perhaps that's why it's called the Great White Way.
However, the journey was not without discovery. The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian is planning to explore the possibility of incorporating more native theatre. And who did I bump into there? Of all people, Canada's federal Minister of Indian and Northern Development, Robert Nault.
You couldn't write this stuff.