Stage Door Review 2023

The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It

Friday, March 17, 2023


by Cliff Cardinal, with Chris Abraham & Rouvan Silogix as co-conspirators

David Mirvish & Crow’s Theatre, CAA Theatre, Toronto

March 14-April 2, 2023;

May 4-7, 2023

“Don’t be an ally, be a friend”

Cliff Cardinal’s play The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It is unlike any land acknowledgement you have ever heard. Once you have seen Cardinal’s play you will not be able to hear anyone else’s land acknowledgement the same way again. For that reason anyone who has ever delivered a land acknowledgement for any reason must see Cardinal’s play to ask themselves what it is they think they are doing and to what end. Cardinal’s examination of what has become a new ritual preceding all manner of theatrical and other events is by turns scathing, humorous and earnest and is a performance that demands to be seen.

When Cardinal first presented the piece at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto in 2021, it was titled William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, A Radical Retelling. No information of any kind was released suggesting that what its first audience would see would be anything other than a new version of Shakespeare’s beloved 1599 comedy. Cardinal began the play with a land acknowledgement. It just so happened that this preface and Cardinal’s musings on it took up 90 minutes and Shakespeare’s play was never performed.

As I mentioned in my recent review of the American play Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury, it is rather foolish nowadays to base a play on surprise because “In the age of social media, surprise will last only until the first tweet after the first preview”.

In the current production Cardinal tells us that Mirvish thought the audience wouldn’t “get it” if he presented the play with the original title and so he had to change it. In fact, the new title is much better since it does not rely on a long-since exposed deceit. It also is more accurate not because it actually says what the play’s true subject is, but because the Shakespearean subtitle has greater irony than it did before. Why is the standard land acknowledgement the way we like it – we being the predominantly White audience who has enough disposable income to attend the theatre?

Cardinal performs his show in the narrow space between a lush red velvet curtain reminiscent of great theatres and opera houses of the past and a row of modern footlights intended to create the same antique atmosphere. This is presumably designed by Ryan Cunningham designated in the programme as the “Associate Creative Co-Conspirator”. The set is meant to conjure up a sense of privilege, especially of the Euro-American sort, that Cardinal’s show will set about to critique.

Cardinal appears and does begin with a standard land acknowledgement: “The CAA Theatre is standing on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Huron, the Wendat, and the Haudenosaunee”. His next line is, “We are trespassing” and the next line, “We can stay”. He expands, “Hang out. Enjoy the show. Just don’t drill for oil”.

The show is a cross between stand-up comedy and a lecture and the way Cardinal begins reveals the way the entire show will play out. Cardinal will make a statement critical of the predominantly White audience he sees before him, followed by a statement that contradicts the previous statement which makes us wonder where exactly Cardinal stands on the issue. This is then often followed by a contradiction of the contradiction which only heightens Cardinal’s stance of irony towards the subject he is addressing.

Cardinal’s brief land acknowledgement is signally different from the kind heard in most theatres. The Tarragon’s version states, “Tarragon acknowledges that we all are a part of a larger ecosystem within our community, Tkaronto, where Tarragon Theatre lives and operates – and that we also commit ourselves and in turn energize our audiences to continually reflect on and respond to our relationship to the land around us. This country has been cared for by generations of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nations”.

Cardinal’s statement, “Just don’t drill for oil” leads directly into a long discussion concerning when Native Peoples were regarded as symbols of ecology. He asks how the use of buffalo jumps can be regarded as ecological. Cardinal wonders what White people would think if their race were associated with only one activity, say, mass shootings. He points out that Native people hold a wide range of opinions – in fact, as wide a range as White people hold.

This is an especially important remark since we are all familiar with how non-Native people will comment on how Native people think or act as if they were not individuals. Indeed, the typical land acknowledgement assumes exactly that by suggesting that all native people have only one point of view.

For all the piously left-leaning members of the artistic community, much of what Cardinal says will come as a shock. He says he hates land acknowledgements: “I find them so goddamn patronizing. You want me to come out in my beads and feathers and brown skin and bless your event. Tell you you’re ‘woke’”. He hates land acknowledgements when they’re done by White people because they are merely virtue signalling. He hates them even more when they’re done by Indigenous people because they have to present themselves as victims.

In a speech that is a real breath of fresh air in a culture fixated on a White-Black or White-Brown dichotomy in assessing the modern world, Cardinal says that history has been “unkind to everyone – even the Irish”. But he goes on to list a host of oppressed peoples today such as the Rohingya Muslims, who suffered genocide at the hands of Myanmar and now suffer persecution at the hands of the Chinese. His list makes clear that White people, contrary to popular academic belief, are not the only race capable of unspeakable villainy.

Further pulling the rug from under self-satisfied leftists, Cardinal launches into an excoriating exposé of so-called “allies” of Native people who are given to what he calls “academic sloganeering”. His criticism is that “allies” say much but do nothing, as if saying the right things will somehow help them accrue enough credits to be counted as “woke”. This is why he says, “Don’t be an ally, be a friend”. Friends help each other. Friends do things for each other. Friends don’t simply pat themselves on the back for having said the right words.

This is ultimately the basis of Cardinal’s critique of land acknowledgements. They are simply formulae for virtue signalling by cultural institutions and all others who use them. They are words spoken with no intent to back them up with actions. Throughout his presentation Cardinal mentions the names of Indigenous artists, musicians, filmmakers, authors and others, whose works non-Indigenous people could buy that would put money directly into the hands of Indigenous people rather than into the hands of producers like David Mirvish (gasps among the audience at this).

Cardinal’s presentation is not entirely comic. A deep seriousness has underlain his satire, a seriousness borne, as he reveals, of barely repressed anger. This comes out in his discussion of the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women and especially in his views of the residential school system and the recent discovery of the mass graves of children nearby. From 2001 to 2015, the homicide rate for Indigenous women in Canada was almost six times as high as the homicide rate for other women. When Cardinal’s sister says she needs to go out for some reason, he always says he will go with her. How is it always to feel unsafe in a country that is supposed to be your home?

As for residential schools, Cardinal views them as Canada’s version of concentration camps, except that he says they were really “rape camps”. The Catholic Church itself he calls a “pedophile cult” and wonders when, if ever, it will do something about it. Nothing in his discussion of either the missing Native women or the iniquity of residential schools is said with a trace of irony.

It would be useful if Cardinal would address the remarks Tomson Highway made to the Huffington Post in 2015 when he said, “There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself”. Others have used Highway’s remarks to counter the view of the schools as houses of unmitigated horror. Rather than speaking to Highway’s experience, however, Cardinal simply asserts that the school were meant to kill the Indian in the child and often killed the child along with the Indian.

People who have seen Cardinal in other shows, such as his solo show Huff from 2012, will know he is a charismatic performer. His manner for the majority of The Land Acknowledgement is that of a sly, savvy trickster who is able to get both people who think they are allies and not tokenists to laugh at themselves without their fully realizing they are being ridiculed. He is a master of the art of seeming to speak in an off-hand manner while actually making his most trenchant comments. Yet, such is Cardinal’s control of his tone of voice and gestural language that he can lead even a generally giddy opening night audience to total silence when he drains all irony from his voice to discuss the most painful subjects.

It is brave for David Mirvish to have made Cardinal’s show part of the Off-Mirvish season and thus to encourage people to see the play who likely have no idea what Crow’s Theatre even is. It really is a show that every Canadian should see. Yet, I wonder whether Cardinal’s show The Land Acknowledgement won’t have  exactly the same effect as all the land acknowledgements that Cardinal satirizes. How many people will see Cardinal’s show, have a few laughs, be forced to confront a few hard facts, and then leave to return to their everyday lives unchanged.

The danger is that many people may think that merely attending a controversial play by a Native person is all they need to do for Native people. Cardinal emphasizes that a land acknowledgement is meaningless without action. I fear that most people will do the easiest thing to do when confronted with a problem – which is to do nothing. Please don’t be one of those people.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Cliff Cardinal. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit