Stage Door Review

The Herd

Sunday, May 15, 2022

✭✭

by Kenneth T. Williams, directed by Tara Beagen

Tarragon Theatre with Citadel Theatre & NAC Indigenous Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

May 11-29, June 7-12, 2022

“In the beginning was the apocalypse”

The Tarragon Theatre closes a lacklustre season with a lacklustre play and in so doing fittingly concludes Richard Rose’s tenure as Artistic Director. The Herd by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams was commissioned directly from Williams by Rose, who wanted Williams to write an Indigenous version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1882), that the Tarragon had successfully staged in 2014 and 2015. One wonders how Rose could have thought that would be a good idea. Williams rightly countered that instead of plugging Indigenous people into the Norwegian playwright’s roles, he would rather chose an Indigenous subject, in this case the rare birth of white bison calves.

While Ibsen’s play deals with the covering up of the truth about the tainted water source for a spa town, Williams’s play deals with the potential misuse of a natural phenomenon for gain. Williams’s subject is thus not a parallel to Ibsen’s, nor should it be. The problem is rather how how ineffectively Williams has turned this subject into a play.

The first difficulty, especially in a play that is only 80 minutes long, is that who the characters are and what their relationships are to each other are not clear from the beginning. We meet Vanessa Brokenhorn (Tai Amy Grauman) and see her in a white lab coat behind a desk at a computer, but where she is working and what authority she has is kept from us until about a third of the way into the action when we discover that she is a geneticist who works for the government and is tasked with insuring the purity of the herd, Through breeding she hopes to make the modern bison as much like their ancestors as possible.

We also meet a young woman with a strong Irish accent who seems totally out of place in Saskatchewan, but acts as if she is somehow important. As we eventually discover this is Aislinn Kennedy (Shyanne Duquette), who is a representative from the EU which has some project, only made partially clear near the conclusion, of supporting the sustainability of bison herds in Canada. For the majority of the play Williams allows us to think that the EU is supporting the bison out of some sort of ecological do-goodism. Only near the end do we realize that the EU wants healthy bison from Canada as an exotic foodstuff since European bison are protected.

Before we even know who they are, Williams shows us that there is instant animosity between Vanessa and Aislinn. Why that is so and what caused it Williams never explains. This is especially curious since Aislinn is warmly welcomed by two residents of the reserve, Sheila (Shyanne Duquette) and Michael (Dylan Thomas-Bouchier). Michael and Vanessa are siblings and Sheila is their aunt. Why do Vanessa’s brother and aunt get along so well with Aislinn? This we also never know.

When Williams first has us meet Sheila we see her take out craft materials of some kind and explain, “I can’t do this!” and put them away. She does this at least three times. Only when Aislinn mentions it the second or third time Sheila gives up, do we realize that Sheila is a sculptor and is working on a statue of a bison.

The only character that Williams presents clearly from the very start is Coyote Jackson (Todd Houseman), a first Nations blogger whose stated goal is to “indigenize the internet”. In reality, he purveys Indigenous wisdom and cures as a type of New Age guru. For him the birth of the white bison calves, a natural variant that occurs in only one out of every 10 million births, is the kind of Native miracle that he can easily monetize, and he encourages his followers to make the trek to the reserve in Saskatchewan to experience the amazing fulfilment of an ancient prophesy.

Since so much of the action revolved around the question whether the white bison are or are not the fulfilment of a prophesy, one might think Williams would tell us what the prophesy is. Maddeningly, he never does. We hear from every character that white bison are sacred and we hear from everyone that there is a prophesy. Williams has a perfectly good chance to enlighten us when Vanessa chides Coyote about not really knowing what the white bison means. She tells him to seek out an elder and listen to what they say.

I fully expected Coyote to do this and for him, and us, to learn about this prophesy, but Williams does not have Coyote visit an elder or lean anything about the “miracle” he is promoting. As a result, we learn nothing either.

In Lakota lore, White Buffalo Calf Woman appeared to the Lakota, gave them a sacred pipe (C’anupa) and taught them the Seven Sacred Rites and the way to live on earth. When she left, she turned into a white buffalo calf. Chief Arvol Looking Horse (born 1954), ceremonial leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Peoples, who current is the keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, passed down to him through 19 generations, has written an entire book on the subject, White Buffalo Teachings from Chief Arvol Looking Horse (2001). He says of the White Buffalo Calf Woman that “She told us her Spirit would return to help us one day in times of great hardship, and that we would recognize her”.

The difficulty with the prophesy is that it is very complicated. Each Nation has its own version and even then the birth of a white calf is not the White Calf but only a harbinger that the White Calf will be coming. Thus, although the birth of white bison calves is a rarity, to proclaim as the fulfilment of a prophecy is premature. To further complicate things, the appearance of the White Calf can portend either good fortune or doom depending on the state of the world.

Coyote Jackson in celebrating the white bison calves is thus misleading his followers for his own gain. Michael, who we eventually discover is the Chief of the reserve is sceptical of Coyote’s actions on spiritual grounds and Vanessa is sceptical on scientific grounds since albinism or the expression of genes from cattle interbred with bison may also produce a white bison and neither of these is the white bison that is held to sacred.

If the characters and the central issue of the play are not clear neither is the play’s plot. What Williams gives us is a play where the story does not progress but goes in circles as if to fill out the time. Vanessa and Aislinn have the same acrimonious argument about authority at least five times. People ask Vanessa if the DNA test results for the calves are in at least four times. Vanessa and Michael tell Coyote Jackson innumerable times to tell his followers to leave the reserve because it is ruining the land and unnerving the bison. He supposedly does so, but then we hear yet again that the followers are increasing. Coyote Jackson himself is outed as a pretendian at least three times. Each time we’re told that revealing that he is just a White guy from Etobicoke will ruin his reputation and break his followers’ faith in him. For totally unknown reasons, it never does.

Conversations and events without outcomes make up nearly the entire play. There is even a huge fire, but it apparently also has no consequences. And then the play simply ends. Then conclusion is a surprise that could not have been predicted from the reasoning or actions of any of the characters.

Important issues are mentioned numerous times but are not developed. The most important is the fact that the people on the reserve have had to boil their water for over 20 years. But though the problem is mentioned it is never discussed or explored as a topic. Indeed, one could say that even the birth of the white calves is also much mentioned but never really developed, even though the intricacies the underlie the prophecy and its relation to spirituality ought to be topics that Williams’s subject would naturally lead to.

Given a play that goes nowhere until its surprise ending, the cast under Tara Beagan’s direction do as much as they can to make us believe that something important is at stake, even if we don’t know what it is. The two actors who make the strongest impression play the two outsiders – Shyanne Duquette makes Aislinn such an annoying person it’s hard to know how Sheila and Michael can stand her, and Todd Houseman, who shows us all the false bravado of a fraud as Coyote Johnson.

Dylan Thomas-Bouchier shows the strength underlying the outward gentleness of the Chief. Shyanne Duquette plays Sheila as a kindly person unaffected by the controversy swirling about the reserve. In contrast Tai Amy Grauman presents Vanessa Brokenhorn as a no-nonsense person who is confronted by far too much nonsense from Coyote Jackson and Aislinn.

Where the show succeeds is in its physical production. When we see Any Moro’s projections of bison running over the plains, sound designer Mishelle Cuttler makes sure they are thundering. Moro has created a very clever set of four arcing countertops that hide various props inside and behind them and that can be moved into various configurations to signify various locations. Spike Lyne’s wide range of lighting effects actually creates a wider variety of moods than does Williams’s text. Moro’s projections are great when revealing landscape and animals or Coyote Jackson’s videocasts, however, when they show the screen of a smartphone for all the mostly pointless phone calls people make, they soon become tedious.

The best line in the play is the first: “In the beginning was the apocalypse”, the apocalypse being the hundred years since first contact between the Wašíču, or Europeans, and Native North Americans during which disease more than war killed as much as 95% of the Indigenous population, a devastation we now can barely comprehend, only compounded by the displacement of First Nations people from their land. Therefore, knowing what the birth of the white bison calves could mean is more important than knowing what they do mean. Why Williams does not explain the significance of the white calves, complex as it is, is a major flaw in the play since Williams presents two characters, Aislinn and Coyote Jackson, who should be told their significance but never are.

Richard Rose’s reign as Artistic Director of the Tarragon has not been a happy one, with misfires seeming to greatly outnumber the occasional success. It is typical that the greatest success this (truncated) season is Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers by Makambe K. Simamba, which is not actually a Tarragon production but really a remount of an earlier production by b current. What Toronto theatre-goers must hope is that the new Artistic Director Mike Payette will be able to restore Tarragon’s reputation as Toronto’s premiere showcase for new Canadian theatre.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Dylan Thomas-Bouchier as Michael, Cheyenne Scott as Aislinn, Tai Amy Grauman as Vanessa, Shyanne Duquette as Sheila and Todd Houseman as Coyote Jackson; Tai Amy Grauman as Vanessa, Cheyenne Scott as Aislinn and Dylan Thomas-Bouchier as Michael; Todd Houseman as Coyote Jackson. © 2022 Nanc Price of the Citadel Theatre production.

For tickets visit www.tarragontheatre.com.