THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN... by Falen Johnson, Jani Lauzon, Cheri Maracle, Monique Mojica and Michelle St. John, directed by Yvette Nolan, with Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble. Presented by Turtle Gals at Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Previews from Saturday (December 1), opens Wednesday (December 5) and runs to December 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$30, stu/srs discounts, Sunday pwyc, previews $15. 416-531-1402. Rating: NNNNN
Find something funny about the Disney Pocahontas or Terrence Malick's live-action film about the same Indian maid? So do the Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, who tackle the image of Aboriginal characters and performers in The Only Good Indian..., a lively multimedia piece that looks at a century of misrepresentation.
A few years ago the troupe scored with The Scrubbing Project, about native women who wanted to "clean" themselves white before they discovered they had a heritage to be celebrated, not expunged.
"During research for The Scrubbing Project, " says Michelle St. John, "we came upon a book called The Only Good Indian The Hollywood Gospel, which examines the history of Indians from the Wild West shows through the silent films and talkies.
"We discovered a treasure trove of names we've never heard of, native people who'd contributed to the history of film. We think that we're doing something new today, but we're actually continuing a long tradition."
"Our goal is to honour these people's memory," continues fellow writer/performer Jani Lauzon. "Their choices were similar and yet different from ours today. Back then, at the time of the establishment of reservations and residential and industrial schools, Aboriginal performers were literally starving. With the change from a nomadic to a confined, sedentary existence, the only place Indians could perform was onstage."
But there was a major factor that these performers - actors, dancers and classically trained musicians - had to deal with. The material had to be palatable for a predominantly white audience, who were looking for stereotypes of how a native person looked and acted. Some of the music was part of the so-called Indianist school, which co-opted Aboriginal melodies and gave them Western harmonies and stylings.
The four performers in The Only Good Indian each play both a contemporary and an historic figure, the former based on archetypes: the wide-eyed novice, the seen-it-all old-timer, the angry militant.
Lauzon is Mika, who's close to losing her agent because she won't dye her grey hair black any more; she also plays Tsianina Redfeather, a 19th-century mezzo who toured the U.S. and Europe.
St. John takes on the stubborn Rachael as well as writer and violinist Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, who played at the White House and later became an activist.
"Early on, Gertrude performed in Victorian gowns, but she realized that no one cared what she said if she dressed like that. At the end of her touring career, she wore buckskin. "
If all this sounds only serious rather than entertaining, it's not. The Turtle Gals' style blends vaudeville, cartoon-like farce, musical parody and powerful visual images with sombre historic moments.
"Non-native audiences aren't sure whether they're allowed to laugh," smiles Lauzon, "but we make fun of our own situation in a clownlike way. When a clown makes you laugh and you subsequently realize that what you're laughing at is also heartbreaking, the performers have accomplished something special.
"Those are the best theatrical moments I know."