CAFÉ DAUGHTER by Kenneth T. Williams, directed by Yvette Nolan, with PJ Prudat (Gwaandak/Native Earth Performing Arts). At the Aki Studio Theatre (585 Dundas East). Opens today (January 16) and runs to January 20, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$20, some discounts. 1-800-204-0855. See listing.
Yvette, the central character in Kenneth T. Williams' Café Daughter, knows what it's like to be kept from her dreams.
Growing up in 50s small-town Saskatchewan, the daughter of a Chinese café owner and his Cree wife, Yvette faces racism on several fronts. She wants to be a doctor but that's a profession she's discouraged from following when, because of her skin colour, she's placed in the slow learners' class.
Worse on a personal level is the warning Yvette's mother imparts, not to tell anyone about her aboriginal heritage.
The solo show is currently on a national tour, produced by Gwaandak Theatre in Whitehorse and presented here by Native Earth Performing Arts. It features PJ Prudat in a variety of roles, including Yvette at several ages. Prudat's proven herself an actor who brings emotional depth and truth to her roles - most recently as the title character in the Next Stage's Salt Baby - and is sure to give powerful resonance to Williams's tale.
"The script is so full of historic and personal honesty," says Prudat over a coffee in the Daniels Spectrum lobby. "Kenneth based it on the life of Lillian E. Quan Dyck, a Saskatchewan woman whose desire to be a doctor was finally realized despite initial roadblocks; her Chinese and Cree background is the same as Yvette's.
"She was the first Chinese-Cree woman to graduate from the University of Saskatchewan, one of the first aboriginal women to pursue an academic career in the sciences; she went on to become a neuroscientist at the university. Currently a senator in Ottawa, Lillian works for indigenous rights and is active in the Idle No More movement."
Prudat, directed by Yvette Nolan, premiered Café Daughter in 2011 and is excited about getting back to its multiple roles.
"Revisiting the text, I find the emotion of each scene is magnified. Maybe because of the number of roles, I'm finding so many human, poignant moments. The script may be funny at times, but it's also revealing of the human condition and the episodes of despair, grief and survival we all face."
Her take on Yvette, who we first meet at the age of nine, is that she's a girl caught up in family problems and larger social issues she's too young to understand.
"She's bright and loves to read, but it's 50s Saskatchewan, so she doesn't have some of the choices of others her age. There's a lot that's been hidden from her, but she's smart enough to know something's up. Happily, Yvette's world opens up when someone realizes that she can do more than she's been given credit for."
Prudat plays a dozen characters, some less sympathetic than others. They include a kind school principal, a prejudiced high school teacher and Maggie, a fashion-conscious teen whose parents are English and Mi'kmaq.
"Lots of the men in the audience like Maggie because she's fun, the kind of person who enjoys going out and having a good time," smiles Prudat. "Not a stereotype, she knows that if she breaks too many rules she's be put in her place."
The actor's favourite character?
"Charlie, Yvette's Chinese father. I get a bit weepy about him. He has the highest stakes in the play, the chance of losing the most. He's also a strong father figure, someone with a hard life for whom things haven't gone the way he'd hoped. He's a good person and breaks my heart."
But it's the young Yvette who's the most liberating to perform.
"I forget as an adult how joyous it can be to revisit childhood with newly opened eyes. You can say anything and not worry about the consequences."