THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN… by Falen Johnson, Jani Lauzon, Cheri Maracle, Monique Mojica and Michelle St. John, directed by Yvette Nolan (Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble). At the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). To December 16. Pwyc-$30. 416-531-1402. Rating: NNN
After watching the turtle gals’ well-meaning if uneven show The Only Good Indian…, you won’t look at a female Aboriginal character in a movie or TV show in quite the same way again.As the production insistently tells us, these characters, when they’re seen at all, often have little dialogue, usually have a full-frontal nude scene and more often than not end up dead. How did this dire situation come about?
The sinister title (which of course concludes “… is a dead Indian”) reminds us of more than a century’s tragic legacy of systemic racism, onscreen, onstage and off.
The show jumps around in time and space, touching on Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which trotted out Aboriginal performers like circus freaks, and the racist pronouncements of U.S. prez Teddy Roosevelt.
But mostly it focuses on the lives of a group of four contemporary actors who routinely compete against each other at auditions, as well as a series of four historic figures who paved their way.
The writers and director Yvette Nolan, as if taking their cue from those Wild West shows, work in a broad style. Laird MacDonald’s set suggests a circus sideshow but also offers intimate glimpses of more private moments. In one striking section, a circular performance area becomes a large drum on which the women beat out their anguish and frustration.
There’s lots of evocative theatricality here. The most powerful sequence sees the women using mannequins to suggest disrobing at an audition, while Buffy Sainte-Marie’s poignant Until It’s Time For Me To Go plays.
But the characters, fictional and real, lack texture. The stories aren’t told vividly enough for us to learn or feel much, and the Buffalo Bill/Roosevelt sequences aren’t as sharp or savage as they could be. The show needs a more unifying structure to succeed.
That’s not the fault of the performers, who energetically sing, dance and act as if their lives depended on it.