TALES OF AN URBAN INDIAN written and performed by Darrell Dennis, directed by Herbie Barnes. Presented by Native Earth at Artword Alternative (75 Portland). Opens tonight (Thursday, November 13) and runs to November 30, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $17-$22, Sunday pwyc. 416-366-7723. Rating: NNNNN
Tired of auditioning for and act ing in stories about victimization, native writer/performer Darrell Dennis decided to break the mould. So he wrote Tales Of An Urban Indian, a decidedly comic yet deeply felt narrative about Simon Douglas, a guy who goes from a western reservation to Vancouver, and from class clown to self-respecting mensch.
It's a literally sobering tale with a lot of satiric laughs aimed at white perceptions of aboriginal culture and vice versa. Just as importantly, the piece looks at Simon's changing sense of what it means to be a native man.
"The work I was offered was full of clichés and the same stereotypical issues," says Dennis, sitting in a coffee shop after rehearsal with director and friend Herbie Barnes.
The two have worked together on comedy stages and TV (The Rez). In addition to Tales, their current effort is the comedy troupe Tonto's Nephews, where they're joined by Sid Bobb and Ryan McMahon.
Laughing over coffee, they admit to being a native pairing of the odd couple. Dennis says he's the uptight anal-retentive one, while Barnes is the slob. Barnes's version is that he relaxes the obsessive Dennis.
"Tales actually began on a computer in Herbie's house, where a bohemian group was creating native arts of all sorts," recalls the writer. "At the time I was figuring out my own life, and writing was a way to do it."
The show has since been workshopped in Native Earth's Weesageechak Begins To Dance festival and in Ottawa.
Dennis plays close to 30 characters in the piece, including Simon at different ages and the women - mother, grandmother, girlfriends both fantasy and real - in his life.
"What Simon realizes is that he's made choices about how to react to situations, that his life isn't defined by victimization."
"By the end he recognizes that there are other roads he could have taken," adds Barnes, an actor in his own right. "In a strange way, when he looks back, Simon is empowered by his own downfall."
But the two never linger on the serious issues of the play. Dennis breaks into a little riff about how doing a native show means shopping for wardrobe at Honest Ed's. There's no chance, he shrugs, that he'll get to browse through an Armani collection.
It's that sense of send-up that anchors the script.
"Everyone knows the history of natives here in Canada," offers Dennis, "but what they rarely get to see in stories about our people is laughter as a coping mechanism, a way of surviving."
Dennis manufactures those laughs with a series of broad, sometimes outrageously stereotypical characterizations, created with Barnes's help.
"Each of the characters has to be clear and concise," says the director, "with tight transitions so one doesn't meld into the other. I think the stronger characters are defined by physicality and body language rather than funny voices."
Despite their expansiveness, all the characters are true in one way or another, interjects Dennis, who's also working in Factory Theatre's ScriptLab Program and helping to develop a manifesto on the future of Canadian theatre.
"Everything in the show happened to me or to people I know. Or they're stories I've heard. As outrageous as the show gets, there's nothing made up."