Edited by Caitlin Gowans
The hype around #Canada150 has seemingly come and gone and like many others, I spent Canada Day in reflection. On this occasion there was an outpouring of ‘think pieces’ from white individuals, myself included, stating their discomfort or feelings of awkwardness in regards to celebrating Canada Day this year because of indignities still faced by Indigenous people and by many marginalized cultures. Obviously, my discomfort or awkwardness surrounding celebrating Canada and what it represents is incomparable to the numerous and constant indignities that Indigenous communities are currently facing in this country. As these think pieces were flooding social media in droves, there were the reports of the Mi’kmaq ceremony in Halifax being disrupted by a group of young white men who identified themselves as “Proud Boys”. It enraged me to think that some individuals believe that this is perfectly acceptable behaviour, or even behaviour to be proud of, in 2017. And while I vowed that I would never knowingly act in such a way: guided and driven by self righteous racist ideology; I can’t help but realize that there are going to be many times where I unknowingly engage in similar colonial actions and behaviours. So what does this mean for a theatre critic? What does that mean for a theatre critic in Canada’s capital? And, further, what does that mean for a white theatre critic covering an overwhelmingly white body of work in Canada’s capital?
We are undoubtedly shaped by our surroundings and we view the world through lenses shaped and moulded by our experiences of the world. Perhaps it’s best to begin with where I grew up to give you readers a bit more context into my life and the lenses with which I have been equipped: I was raised in Collingwood, Ontario which, if you’ve never heard of, rests at the bottom of the Blue Mountain Resort (aka the “Tremblant” of Ontario) and about a 15 minute drive from Wasaga Beach, the world’s longest freshwater beach. Collingwood is also home to the Collingwood Elvis Festival, which is a street party I haven’t missed in over 20 years and sees Elvis impersonators from all over the globe (It is, in fact, the second largest Elvis Festival in North America after Graceland). Though much and more has changed in this small town in Simcoe County since I moved here to Ottawa almost ten years ago now, growing up in Collingwood was pretty much the epitome of what it meant to be white and privileged. It was not a super diverse town. There were very negative stereotypes held about the Jamaican field-hands who were hired on seasonally to work in Collingwood’s apple orchards; the few BIPoC individuals were often identified solely by their ethnicity (for example, one Indigenous individual commonly went by the nickname ‘Injin’); not to mention that Collingwood is one of the only towns in Ontario that does not allow the raising of celebratory flags (i.e. the rainbow flag most commonly associated with Gay Pride and the LGBTQIA+ community). I personally grew up in a middle-class family with two working parents (for the most part anyways) and a younger sister and we never really wanted for anything. Even though, as I grew older, and my group of friends and my family expanded to include members who identify as BIPoC , as LGBTQIA+, and as people living with disabilities; my existence for the most part rests in a bubble of privilege.
I currently reside in Ottawa on unceded Algonquin territory where I was fortunate enough to be able to afford post-secondary education and where I can work as a theatre critic basically on my own dime. Recent events including, though not limited to, the ones I’ve just mentioned above have given me reason to rethink my position on arts criticism and what it means to write from a place of privilege. In many arts communities across Canada, and specifically Ottawa, the conversation has frequently revolved around adopting new strategies to encourage more diversity on our stages. One solution has come out of the National Arts Centre where they have initiated an Indigenous Theatre stream alongside its French and English counterparts, not to mention the continued research and presentation of theatre and disability. To be curated by newly instated Artistic Director Kevin Loring, the NAC is working towards having full and robust Indigenous programming that will certainly be unlike anything NAC Theatre audiences are used to. However, who will be there to interpret these pieces? And, what is the place of the white theatre critic when it comes to offering criticism about Indigenous art when, historically speaking, we’ve hardly, if ever, given credence to these cultures and their issues in the mainstream?
At the time of posting this article, the members who make up the Canadian Theatre Critics Association are predominantly white. Full disclosure: the writers and editors for the New Ottawa Critics are also predominantly white. This is something we would very much like to see change. In Ottawa specifically, there are no BIPoC regularly reviewing the theatre scene and this is certainly reflective of the community itself (As brought up in the “Ottawa Theatre So White” panel hosted by Fresh Meat Theatre Festival earlier this year)- though that isn’t to say the performing arts community isn’t taking a call to action. That being said, come 2019 and the inauguration of the Indigenous Theatre stream it will feel counter-productive if the only critics writing about it are of European colonial descent. While on the one hand the Theatre Critic is thought to be better versed in the intricacies of the theatre arts than the average theatre goer, how are we to even begin to comment on Indigenous performance styles or narratives when they have been almost erased from our country’s cultural memory? I recognize that we have the ability to source knowledge at our fingertips given technology, and that I could easily learn enough about Inuit throat singing to substantiate a point in a review about whether or not I felt the artist’s creative intentions line up with the cultural context of the performative device- but doesn’t that still feel very privileged?
Listen, I’m not trying to suggest that white people don’t have a “place” to comment on art produced by BIPoC, only that it’s very likely that on this road to reconciliation a lot of us are going to have to equip some new lenses. Take for example, my experience at the Indspire Awards this past March where I was hired on as a Production Assistant: on the day of filming the awards, I was absolutely stunned and mesmerized by the sheer beauty in the Indigenous performances where each performer was completely decked out in their regalia and straight up unabashed pride. My next feelings were ones of shock and embarrassment- I literally had no idea what any of these garments or movements meant, or symbolized, or even where they come from. I was lost in translation, as it were, and it really hit home that I will neither know the pain of having to forcibly give up your culture nor the struggle to reclaim it. You’re not taught these things in school (let alone live those experiences) and when you grow up white, you never even give it a second thought. Now I realize this is only one side-effect of the cultural genocide our country has committed over the last 150 years. Moving forward we have to be conscious to not bare out the same colonial relationship between indigenous art and colonial consumption and othering of indigenous art. Historically, colonial powers have taken parts of the colonized culture that they found desirable and packaged it for their own consumption or enjoyment while simultaneously deriding the other parts of the cultural that the colonizers found less salient. So, how do we get around this overwhelming history when creating a critique of a piece of art?
In any case, I am looking forward to the learning opportunity that will be afforded to me over the coming years in Ottawa where a desire for learning and transparency will hopefully keep me accountable in my writing. The New Ottawa Critics will aim to take a more hands on approach in this regard when it comes to publishing theatre reviews: we will make a more steadfast effort to arrange interviews and discussions with BIPoC artists who are producing and touring in the Capital region as a way of educating ourselves on a deeper level about non-Western/non-white artistic practices; we will be more active in our outreach for BIPoC writers and editors to collaborate with; and we will strive for more accountable and responsible writing and editing practices.
Most of all, we’d love to hear from you: the readers. What do you think? How can theatre criticism strive to be more diverse and inclusive in its treatment of art created by BIPoC? How can organizations be more accountable in their communities, particularly if said community is mostly white? and, finally, what are some good strategies that white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heteronormative theatre critics can adopt that will embody both allyship and critical/informed thinking? Our comment section is open, or drop us a line at newottawacritics613[at]gmail[dot]com!