Although my compatriot and I sat through an ungodly amount of traffic last Tuesday evening to get to Kingston, Ontario, Daniel David Moses’ Almighty Voice & his Wife, directed by the formidable Lib Spry and playing at The Grand Theatre (the Baby Grand, to be exact), certainly made up for it. An incredibly thought-provoking text that, with a little more fine-tuning on the production side, is sure to become a significant contribution to the canon of contemporary Indigenous theatre (though, admittedly, I am not the one who gets to decide that).
I wrote a piece earlier this year that addresses the fact that I, as a white cis-woman living in Ontario, write from an almost ridiculous place of privilege and, due to my white privilege, will often unconsciously participate in racism while still also benefiting from its socio-cultural systems. So to briefly reiterate: when it comes to reviewing work derived from the voices and stories of Indigenous peoples (and other PoC), there will be times when my privilege will become very apparent and for that I truly apologize. All that to say, moving forward, I hope any ignorance displayed on my end is seen as an opportunity for further discussion and education (but, again, I’m not really the one that gets to decide that).
Now that that’s out of the way, we can get back to the production at hand: Moses and Spry are collaborating again alongside original composer and music director David Deleary to revisit this text which hearkens to a much different socio-political context than when this team first premiered it 25 years ago. Though Canada is by no means perfect and still has a long way to go towards full reconciliation, the fact that we do have the Truth and Reconciliation report by the Honorable Senator Murray Sinclair (among others) is a sign that we are at the very least starting to become more aware of our past and continued transgressions towards Indigenous communities and some of the paths we need to start following to improve things moving forward. Programming and supporting Indigenous backed art is definitely a good start.
Taking place over two very stylistically different acts, Almighty Voice and His Wife is, at its core, a tale of survival and of reclamation in the face of historical and systemic cultural eradication.While the first act provides the emotional foundation for our two Indigenous protagonists with their story unfolding in a fairly traditional narrative arc (where we see the first meeting of Almighty Voice and White Girl; their marriage and home life; and the way they choose to interact with these new monotheistic settlers which ultimately leads to tragedy), the second act works in complete opposite where the director has chosen to adopt a Brechtian-style clown show (“The Ghost Dance”). The Brechtian nature of the piece at this point makes use of the alienation effect in such a way that forces the predominantly middle class white audience to reconsider what we think we might know about Canadian history and our treatment of Indigenous peoples. The best example of this lies in the fact that both performers come out in this second act wearing ‘white face’ which is both an homage to the aesthetic style of the physical performance (i.e. that of a clown and/or minstrel show) and, more importantly, a significant statement regarding the concept of ‘acting white’- an idea that many people of colour will be familiar with as a way of possibly ensuring their safety and/or well-being in any given situation.
The first act, to me, could use some tightening up. The story is a trifle convoluted in that there are many details and/or characters that are mentioned though never really explained for example, the relationship between White Girl and Almighty Voice’s mother. There are also some scenes that tend to drag on a little long like the scene in which the two are discussing having a baby. However, some of this could perhaps be attributed to my own white privilege bubble where these little details about Indigenous culture and community are probably flying over my head. I admit that I have limited experience with Indigenous story-telling and it is important to know one’s limitations of experience when engaging with art and theatre.
On the technical side of things, having projections of the moon on the scrim are a lovely idea, but the execution of them in the actual performance appears to be a little shaky which can be distracting. The use of a lighting gobo on the stage floor to signify a campfire also felt like an unnecessary detail; especially when one considers the great simplicity of the set (which appears to be artfully arranged hanging drapery) which so seamlessly transitions from a tipi in the first act to circus tent in the second.
The music, however, is excellent. Deleary, who is on stage visibly playing the entire time, provides an often haunting soundtrack to Almighty Voice and White Girl’s story in the first act utilizing traditional Indigenous instruments like the hand drum and wooden flute. In the second act he changes tune both literally and figuratively as he picks up a banjo (another interesting comment/symbol given that the invention of the banjo itself is credited to the African slaves working on the plantations in the USA) and strums out some classic British anthems, like ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ only, this time, re-appropriated with new lyrics and under new titles like “The Sioux Song”.
It is very encouraging to see two Indigenous performers tackle material that, by and large, is written for them and also by a member of their community. Ottawa is only now creating more of these opportunities for Indigenous theatre artists, like with the induction of the new Indigenous stream at the NAC under the Artistic Direction of Kevin Loring. In any case, Brefny Caribou (White Girl and Interlocutor) and Brendan Chandler (Almighty Voice) have their work cut out for them with this text that asks the performers to show a snapshot of Indigenous history in the first hour and, in the next, has them enact a satire of almost everything we just watched. An important detail to note, though, is that despite the change in performance style and the new costumes- our protagonists haven’t left us.
Perhaps it’s because the text in the first section is much more poetic than the second, but some of the acting feels a bit forced. To be honest, it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but what I can say is that coming into intermission I was less than enthused by what I was watching. Once that second act kicks in though? You get the feeling that both performers are much more comfortable with both the material and the acting style and this really sells this whole show for me. Caribou, in particular, goes on an incredible journey over the course of 2 hours and the final scene where White Girl, after struggling to break through the facade of the Interlocutor, wipes off the white makeup and reclaims her heritage- easily the most powerful image in the entire production.
Overall, I think this production displays the artistic calibre that certainly demands more audiences. The intelligence of the creative team is woven all through the text, it’s mise-en-scene, and the music scoring it making it one of the most thought-provoking productions I’ve seen in awhile.
Almighty Voice and His Wife
by Daniel David Moses
A Theatre Kingston Production
Directed by Lib Spry
White Girl | Brefny Caribou
Almighty Voice | Brendan Chandler
Playwright | Daniel David Moses
Director | Lib Spry
Assistant Director | Heather Majaury
Composer/Musical Director | David DeLeary
Set and Lighting Designer | Michel Charbonneau
Head of Wardrobe | Sage Paul
Stage Manager | Matthew Lagacé