Themes of Character, Womanhood, and Community

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2052

Terence, the popular playwright of ancient Rome, once wrote that "Fortune favors the bold." While this may be true in some cases, none of the bold women in Highway's The Rez Sisters seem particularly "favored'' by Fortune or anything else for that matter. Pelajia, for example, opens the play by voicing her desire to leave: "I want to go to Toronto." Veronique complains of her drunken husband. Emily was beaten by her husband for ten years, then left only to experience death in a new relationship. Annie lost her sweetheart to her own sister, Marie-Adele, who is now stricken with cancer. And Philomena, who seems the most jovial of the group, secretly wonders about the child she was forced to give up twenty-eight years before. All of the women hope that, by winning the bingo jackpot, they will be able to realize their dreams and improve their lives. What Highway suggests, however, is that real change cannot be found by the luck of a bingo machine (or more succinctly, money); rather, it must come from within the women themselves. As the women journey from Wasy to Toronto, they embark on a spiritual and emotional journey as well, returning with a fresh attitude, ready to affect real change.

The play begins with a depiction of the women's lives at "plain, dusty, boring ... old Wasy," the "rez" where most of the action takes place. Pelajia is hammering shingles on her roof and complaining that Wasy needs paved roads "so that people will stop fighting and screwing around and Nanabush [the Trickster] will come back to us because he'll have paved roads to dance on." She continues to describe Wasy as a place where everyone is "crazy" because there are "no jobs" and "nothing to do but drink and screw each other's wives and husbands and forget about our Nanabush." Gossip is a favorite pastime on the rez, as seen when Annie enters and begins asking if anyone heard that "Gazelle Nataways plans to spend her bingo money to go to Toronto with Big Joey." Their love of gossip seems to benefit them, however, when they learn that, in Toronto, “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD" will be played for a $500,000 jackpot. Their reactions to this news displays their feelings of claustrophobia living in Wasy: Marie-Adele, for example, hopes to use her future winnings to buy an island "with pine trees and maple trees and big stones and little stonelets" where she can live "real nice and comfy" with her husband and her fourteen children. Similarly, Annie plans on discovering life off of the rez, in Toronto, where she can feel sophisticated and "drink beer quietly—not noisy and crazy like here.'' As pointed out by David Richards of the New York Times, the women's desperation to escape is evidenced by the repetitive phrase they each use, "When I win," rather than, "If I win," The Delaware playwright Daniel David Moses has written that these women (and many real women like them) were never "encouraged to regard their own lives as important," and the opening scene of the play reveals this fact.

Highway's emphasis on the characters of Native women suggests that he is exploring the ways in which their drive for success differs from that of their male counterparts. In the Globe and Mail , Highway said that he is "sensitive to women because of the matrilineal principle in [Cree] culture, which has gone on for thousands of years." When examined from a distance, one can see that these women fit the roles of various "types": Annie is the local...

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busybody; Emily is the masculine biker; Philomena is the rez's comic relief; Marie-Adele is the mother figure; Veronique is the bitter gossip; and Zhaboonigan, Veromque's mentally disabled adopted daughter, is an outsider that is loved but cared for out of a sense of pity and duty. In offering these various character types, Highway creates a model of a community, where all sorts of women need to accept each other if their lives are ever to improve. There are no men inThe Rez Sisters, although several are discussed by the women. The picture that the women's dialogue paints of the rez men suggests that they will be of little help in healing the rez: Veronique's husband, Pierre St. Pierre, never provides his family with any money because he “drinks it up''; Big Joey is a womanizer who spends his days with other men's wives; Wasy's Band Leader has been making empty promises about community improvements (such as the new road Pelajia wants) for years, yet he never fulfills these promises; Henry Dadzinanare, Emily's ex-husband, beat her "every second night for ten long ass-fuckin' years." Highway's use of an all-female cast (except for Nanabush, who, due to his nature, can be played by either a male or female actor) serves to remind the audience that, although the play looks at universal human issues (such as death and love), he is offering a woman's perspective on these issues—a perspective that the audience sees change as the play proceeds.

One of the ways that Highway illustrates the changes in the sisters' attitudes is his depiction of the van ride to Toronto. At one point in this literal and figurative journey, Marie-Adele wanders off while the others fix a flat tire. She is greeted by Nanabush, this time in the guise of a nighthawk, who approaches and then attacks her as an omen of her impending death. Her frantic cries reveal her complete and total fear:

"What do you want? My children'' Eugene? No1 Oh no! Me? Not yet. Not yet. Give me time Please. Don't Please don't Awus [go away]! Get away from me! Eugene! Awus1 You fucking bird1 Awus! Awus! Awus1 Awus! Awus!"

Following this, she has "a total hysterical breakdown"; later in the van, she tells Pelajia,"een-pay-seek-see-yan [I'm scared to death]." To comfort her, Emily and Pelajia must face death almost as squarely as Marie-Adele herself, causing them to grow stronger as individuals and sisters. As Bolt remarked on this scene in Books in Canada, "We have seen the sisters raging at each other in a remarkable sequence, a riot of every conceivable insult," but now they are "gentlest with each other" because "their journey has taken them simply and directly to the heart of the matter." Their conversation with Marie-Adele causes Emily to consider the presence of death in her own life and understand how it has affected her: when her lover committed suicide in San Francisco, Emily "drove on. Straight into daylight. Never looked back." Now, however, in the safe haven of the van, Emily can be honest with herself and others and find the comfort she would never solicit but desperately needs.

The appearance of Nanabush in the previously described scene is a reminder to the audience that the women's spirituality is another of Highway's artistic concerns. "Nanabush" is the Ojibway name for the Trickster, a central figure in Native mythology. Throughout The Rez Sisters, Nanabush observes the action, seen only by Marie-Adele and Zhaboonigan (because their suffering has brought them closer to the spirit world). At first, Marie-Adele toys with Nanabush (in the guise of a seagull), who asks her to "fly away'' with him. Her response, "I can't fly away. I have no wings. Yet," reveals her desire to escape but also her failure to fully understand the reason for Nanabush's visit: he has come to guide her to her death, a fact that Marie-Adele is not yet ready to accept. When he appears to Zhaboonigan, she describes to him a time when she was sexually molested:' "They ask me if I want ride in car.... Took me far away. Ever nice ride, Dizzy. They took all my clothes off me. Put something up inside me here." Zhaboonigan, in a sense, can be seen as a symbolic character, representing the "rape" of Native pride and culture by white civilization and society; as if reflecting this idea, Nanabush "goes through agonizing contortions" while listening to her story. "The missionaries think they've killed off the Trickster," Highway told Conlogue in the Globe and Mail, "but we don't think so. To my mind, the Trickster has been passed under the table for two hundred years.'' Part of Highway's purpose in writing The Rez Sisters is to reawaken his audience's awareness of Nanabush and bring him out from "under the table.''

The climax of the play, the actual bingo game, features a theatrical device that links the viewers even more closely with the characters, breaking down the wall between the audience and the actors: viewers play a "warm-up" bingo game (using cards supplied in their programs). The "theatrical daring'' of this device has been praised by Moses in Canadian Fiction, who explained, "We literally play along, experiencing for ourselves The Rez Sisters' passion." The purpose of this device, however, is also to lure the audience into thinking like the sisters, to intensify their hope that Annie's B-14 (the number she needs to complete her bingo card) will be called. Of course, it never is, and the sisters, exploding in frustration, storm the bingo machine as if to protest what they see as the unfair hand of fortune.

While this occurs, Marie-Adele is escorted away from the melee by the Bingo Master, who "waltzes romantically" with her, says, "Bingo" in her ear, and then transforms into the nighthawk: Nanabush in dark feathers. In his essay in Canadian-Literature, Johnston remarked that Marie-Adele "comes to accept her own death in the same way that she accepted life, gently and with love." Her death here is the central event of the play: before the numbers are called, Highway has the actresses arranged at a long bingo table, featuring Veronique's "good luck" crucifix and lit "so that it looks like "The Last Supper.'" This is a Christian image, to be sure, but one that many non-Native viewers are able to understand. Like Christ, Marie-Adele accepts her death with grace: "beautiful soft... darkwings ... come and get me ... wings here ... take me." The connection here is clear: as Christ died to create great changes in his followers' minds and hearts, the death of Mane-Adele will do the same for her "disciples" at Wasy.

The final scenes of the play illustrate these effects in a number of ways. Veronique has moved into Marie-Adele's house to care for her children; now she has a home with everything that Pierre St. Pierre's drunkenness has withheld from her. Her previous "small-mindedness," commented Johnston, "was a symptom not of having too little love to bestow, but rather of having too few people on whom to bestow it." Annie has decided to practice and pursue her dream of a country-music career. Emily reveals to everyone that she is pregnant with Big Joey's baby, as if fate has compensated for the loss of Marie-Adele; while Emily is unimaginable as a mother when she first enters the play, she is now a little softer and the implication here is that motherhood will allow her to express more openly the love and compassion that was reawakened during the sisters' journey. The most notable transformation is Pelajia's, who stands at Marie-Adele's grave and realizes that complaining will not help anyone: "Kinda' silly, innit, this business of living? But. What choice do we have?" To put her new perspective into action, Pelajia climbs atop her roof again and begins hammering at her shingles, but this time in a different state of mind: when asked by Philomenaif she still wants to leave Wasy and go to Toronto, she replies, "Well ... oh ... sometimes. I'm not so sure I would get along with him if I were to live down there. I mean my son Tom.'' Her acceptance of herself and the rez is growing stronger, and, as if to bless her conversion, Nanabush makes a final appearance on her roof, dancing "merrily and triumphantly" to the beat of her hammer. The "good fortune" that The Rez Sisters so desperately hoped for was, in fact, to lose "THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WOR1D." Losing at bingo (and, more importantly, losing Marie-Adele) has forced them to reevaluate their lives and take the responsibility of change upon themselves.

Source: Daniel Moran, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

No Wings Yet

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters takes us from the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island to the World's Biggest Bingo in Toronto. It's a free-wheeling, unforgettable journey in terrific company, the Rez sisters, all of them full of energy and honesty and dreams and life.

There is Pelajia Patchnose, who wants paved roads "so people will stop fighting and screwing around and Nanabush will come back to us because he'll have paved roads to dance on.'' There's Annie Cook, who wants to go to Toronto to go to all the record stores, listen to all the live bands "and drink beer quietly, not noisy and crazy like here.'' There's Philomena Moosebait, who wants only a toilet "big and wide and very white." And there's Marie-Adele Starblanket who has cancer and who counts her 14 children on the posts of her white picket fence: "Simon, Andrew, Matthew, Janie, Nicky, Ricky, Ben, Mark, Ron, Don, John, Tom, Pete, and Rosemarie." Marie-Adele longs for an island, "the most beautiful, incredible island in the whole goddamn world" for her 12 Starblanket boys and two Starblanket girls. In all, there are seven vital, remarkable women; and we also meet Nanabush, the trickster, disguised as a seagull, a disturbing spirit whom only Marie-Adele and the mentally disabled girl, Zhaboonigan Peterson, can see.

ZHABOONIGAN- Don't fly away. Don't go. I saw you before. There, there. It was a. Screwdriver They put a screwdriver inside me. Here. Remember Ever lots of blood. The two white boys Left me in the bush. Alone. It was cold ... Ever nice white bird you...

Wasaychigan Hill is "plain, dusty, boring ... old Wasy" where the "old man has to go the hundred miles to Espanola just to get a job'' and the "boys ... Gone to Toronto. Only place educated Indian boys can find decent jobs these days." It is also a world full of poetry and spirits, "where on certain nights at the bingo ... you can see Bingo Betty's ghost, like a mist, hovering in the air over the bingo tables, playing bingo like it's never been played before," and where Nanabush courts Marie-Adele, dancing with her, begging her to fly away with him.

Marie-Adele tells him she has no wings "... Yet." Besides, she is going to Toronto. For tests. And to play the biggest Bingo in the world with her five sisters.

It is when the women start out for Toronto, driving through the night, that the story becomes most haunting. While the others stop to change a tire blown out on the pitch-dark midnight highway, Marie-Adele meets the Night Hawk, the dark side of Nanabush. He reminds her that she's dying and she's terrified. She talks about her husband, Eugene:

I could be really mad, just raging man just wanna tear his eyes out with my nails when he walks in the door and my whole body goes "k-k-k-k" ...

She talks about "the curve of his back, his breath on my neck, Adele, ki-sa-gee-ee-tin oo-ma, making love, always in Indian, only. When we still could. I can't even have him inside me anymore. It's still growing there. The cancer."

"Pelajia," she explains in Cree, " Een-pay-seek-see-yan. Pelajia, I'm scared to death." The six women continue together toward Toronto as Pelajia tries to comfort Marie-Adele.

You know, one time, I knew this couple where one of them was dying and the other one was angry at her for dying And she was mad because he was gonna be there when she wasn't and she had so much left to do.

We have seen the sisters raging at each other in a remarkable sequence, a riot of every conceivable insult. Now, when they're gentlest with each other, when their journey has taken them simply and directly to the heart of the matter, the stage erupts again. Nanabush, in disguise as the Bingo Master, lets everyone in the audience play one warm-up game on the bingo cards included with each program.

Whoever wins this warm-up game, it isn't the Rez sisters. Then the biggest bingo in the world is called, for the big pot they all want, ("A HALF MILLION smackeroos! If you play the game right"). They do everything they can to win. Philomena plays 27 cards. But when they realize it isn't going to work, they storm the stage, complaining that the game is unfair. It's a wonderful moment of theatre, as the Bingo Master changes to the Night Hawk and waltzes away with Marie-Adele.

The Rez sisters return to the reserve without Marie-Adele. Although the play's final sequence seems empty without her, perhaps we are feeling the same loss the characters feel. After all, for two hours we have been part of an extraordinary, exuberant, life-affirming family.

Source: Carol Bolt, "No Wings Yet" in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, no. 2, March, 1989, p. 26.

Legends on the Stage

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

Each summer, members of the Native Theatre School—the only one of its kind in Canada-develop a new production at their farm in Heathcote, Ont., and then take it on the road. Audiences on Indian reserves enjoy the plays, whether they deal with urban teenagers or movie stereotypes of Indians, says school director Cathy Cayuga: "They laugh aloud—they understand the absurdities." But when her troupe performs for white audiences, they are often greeted with confusion. Added Cayuga: "People are terribly self-conscious—afraid to laugh." Few Canadian plays successfully cross the boundary between native and white experience. Those that have, such as The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, have been written or coauthored by whites. Until Manitoba-born Cree playwright Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters, which opened last week at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, the imaginative landscape claimed by Canada's dedicated band of native theatre professionals has been unmapped territory for the rest of the country.

The Rez Sisters premiered at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto a year ago, was runner-up for a Floyd S. Chalmers Award for outstanding Canadian Play in 1986 and won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play 1986/87. The play follows seven women who leave their reserve—or ' 'rez'' in native slang—on Manitoulin Island, Ont., to visit the world's biggest bingo game in Toronto. Their banter, sometimes tough, sometimes wryly humorous, reflects the staccato rhythms of the playwright's native Cree tongue. Highway attributes his drama's success to its director, Larry Lewis, and to its actors. But the play, which will soon tour Western Canada, also marks a turning point in native arts generally. Said Highway:' 'We're entering a second wave. Exactly 25 years ago Norval Morriseau's first solo exhibition of paintings started a revolution by sharing the sacred stories beyond our communities. Now we are extending that, taking the oral traditions into theatre and three dimensions."

Highway is artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., one of the country's 12 full-and part-time native performing groups. Some are based in cities, such as Vancouver's six-year-old Spirit Song Native Indian Theatre Company, which runs ambitious training programs in theatre arts and mounts at least one new production a year. Others are reserve-based companies, such as the De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig Theatre on Manitoulin Island. The group's name—"storytellers" in Ojibwa—reflects its focus on translating legends for the enjoyment of both reserve audiences and summer tourists.

Blake Debassige, president of De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig, distinguishes between the contemporary dramas produced by urban-companies and what his group does, which he calls "the romantic tradition—an extension of telling stories round the campfire." Because those traditions were suppressed for centuries by white missionaries, some native activists say that the act of resurrecting legends is just as revolutionary as creating gritty new works. Once, native theatre took highly sophisticated forms: when Capt. James Cook arrived on Canada's west coast in 1778, he found Nootka Indians using masks, props, trapdoors, lighting and smoke effects in their religious dramas. But between 1884 and 1951 performing many theatrical celebrations was punishable under the Criminal Code.

Changes to the code marked the beginning of a renaissance. So did reports of growth in indigenous peoples' theatre in the Caribbean, Scandinavia and the South Pacific. In 1980 and again in 1982 dele- gates from those cultures converged in Ontario for the Indigenous Peoples' Theatre Celebrations, creating an international support network that still persists. Native Theatre School director Cayuga has studied community theatre in Jamaica, and the school tour last year included two Carib Indians and a Lapp, or Sami, from Sweden.

Despite the success of The Rez Sisters, it is at the community level that native theatre will continue to flourish. That is because its primary goal is not to entertain a mass audience but to make connections with indigenous cultures torn apart by social change. Even The Rez Sisters performs a healing role. The play's only male character is Nanabush— in Ojibwa legend, the trickster who is also something of a Christ figure, an intermediary between humanity and the world of the spirit. Said Highway: "When the white man came to this continent, Nanabush passed out under the table of The Silver Dollar [a bar in Toronto]. Our responsibility as native artists is to sober him up.''

Source: Drew Taylor, "Legends on the Stage" in Maclean's, Vol. 100, no. 42, October 19,1987, p. 69.


Critical Overview