Tomson Highway Essay - Critical Essays

Highway, Tomson


Tomson Highway 1951–

Canadian dramatist.

The following entry provides an overview of Highway's career through 1994.

One of Canada's most highly regarded dramatists, Highway is primarily known for his award-winning plays The Rez Sisters (1986) and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989). In these works Highway uses Native humor, language, and mythology to address the effects of European colonization on Native North American cultures, the realities of reservation life, and contemporary Native issues. Commenting on the numerous influences evident in Highway's work, Denis W. Johnston has stated: "Highway is perhaps the first Canadian member of the international tradition of accomplished writers who work in their second language. Among playwrights, this tradition included Samuel Beckett in French and Tom Stoppard in English. Like them, Highway delights in linguistic estrangements and paradoxes. Furthermore, the fact that Highway's first language is Cree contributes to his unusual dramatic style."

Biographical Information

Born in northwest Manitoba, Canada, Highway spoke only Cree until age six when he began attending a Roman Catholic boarding school. He stayed there until age fifteen, returning to his family for only two months each year. A musical prodigy in high school, Highway studied music in Canada and England and later obtained degrees in English and music from the University of Western Ontario. After spending several years working for various Native support organizations and with Canadian writer James Reaney, Highway stated that he "started writing plays, where I put together my knowledge of Indian reality in [Canada] with classical structure, artistic language. It amounted to applying sonata form to the spiritual and mental situation of a drunk." Highway was also the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., Toronto's only professional Native theater company, until 1992.

Major Works

The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips, the first two works of a proposed cycle of seven plays, are set on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Canada. The Rez Sisters involves seven women, who plan to go to the world's largest bingo game in Toronto, and a male Nanabush—the Ojibway name for "The Trickster"—a Native mythological being who can assume various guises and who is a central figure in Cree culture. While the women experience many difficulties, Highway emphasizes the importance of creativity and humor in their lives. He has stated: "I'm sure some people went to Rez expecting crying and moaning and plenty of misery, reflecting everything they've heard about or witnessed on reserves. They must have been surprised. All that humour and love and optimism, plus the positive values taught by Indian mythology." Dry Lips revolves around a female Nanabush and seven men (who are mentioned but do not appear in The Rez Sisters). Considered less optimistic than The Rez Sisters, this work addresses such issues as alcoholism, rape, violence, and misogyny. Johnston has observed that "we find in Dry Lips a litany of disturbing and violent events, set within a thin frame of hopefulness."

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Highway's works has been generally positive. Both The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips have won numerous prizes, including the prestigious Dora Mavor Moore award, and Highway has been called, by Johnston, "the most important new Canadian playwright to emerge in the latter half of the 1980s." Although sometimes considered stronger in characterization and humor than in plot, The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips have been acclaimed as revealing portrayals of reservation life and as insightful examinations of the cultural, religious, environmental, and societal issues confronting Natives in a contemporary, urban-oriented world. Critics note, however, that the spiritual insights and ultimately hopeful messages revealed in these works have universal implications. Highway himself has stated: "Native culture is beautiful, Native language is beautiful, Native mythology is beautiful and powerful, [and these] are very relevant, increasingly so, as time goes on. At a time in our history, as a community of human beings, when the world is about to get quite literally destroyed, and all life forms have a very good chance of being completely obliterated—at a crucial time like this, Native people have a major statement to make about the kind of profound change that has to come about in order for the disaster to be averted."

Principal Works

The Rez Sisters (drama) 1986
Aria (monologues) 1987
Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (drama) 1989
The Sage, the Dancer, and the Fool [with Rene Highway and Bill Merasty] (drama) 1989


Ray Conlogue (essay date 21 November 1987)

SOURCE: "Mixing Spirits, Bingo and Genius," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, November 21, 1987, p. C5.

[In the following excerpt, Conlogue discusses The Rez Sisters within the context of Highway's life and culture.]

Tomson Highway has long black hair, worn straight and loose. There is no mistaking that he is a native person—he will even call himself an Indian, but the word is tongue-in-cheek nowadays—and his commitment to his heritage is profound. That much he has shown in a play called The Rez Sisters, which came out of nowhere last year to win the Dora award for best play.

The Rez Sisters is being remounted by Toronto's Factory Theatre. That's why, this particular afternoon, Highway is found sitting at the piano in the Factory Theatre's green room, basking in late autumn sunshine. He may have just happened to be there, but the image has the composed quality of an artist mindful of such things. In either case, it is dramatic: a black glossy piano and a black glossy mane of hair.

Highway embodies the customary contradictions of living in two worlds at once, native and white, but he embodies them with special intensity because, simply put, he is outrageously talented. He grew up speaking Cree, not learning English until his teens—but he speaks it now with a fluid and untrammelled eloquence. And although as a child on a Manitoba reserve, he witnessed privation and brutality of every kind, he exudes a startling serenity.

"Indisputably bad things happened to my people," he says. "But it's water under the bridge. Now we have to deal with it, cure it."

Highway, who is 28 years old, is deeply attached to the spirituality of his people. Their religion was badly battered by the traders and missionaries and battered worse by the move off the reserves to the white cities. But it survives nonetheless, and it underlies The Rez Sisters.

The play is set on Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay, which is a long way from Highway's home on a reserve in northern Manitoba. But it is a place he knows well; he moved there to start a theatre company after graduating from Western University.

One of the things that struck him, after having lived some years in the big white cities, was the way people in isolated communities give a mythical quality to their own lives. "Even in a few years, certain people's adventures become legends. Near where I lived on Manitoulin, there had been a lady who played bingo with such ferocity that she became the queen of bingo. She's dead now, but her spirit still hovers over the bingo hall." He smiles. He is not sanctimonious about these things. "It's a neat way of making your life more fun than it might have been."

Out of such stories, and the sense of fun underlying native culture—an idea he returns to frequently—Highway began to fashion the story of seven women on this reserve. The story focuses on a huge bingo game they have heard of, which is going to take place in Toronto. They set off on an epic journey to the Big City, which none of them has seen before. On their journey they are accompanied by a seagull, played by an actor; the bird embodies Nanabush, the trickster spirit at the core of native religion.

As the play develops, the story pushes out in several directions. Only two of the women can actually see the magical bird, one of them being a retarded girl who has suffered terrible abuse in her life.

"This trickster is so central to our system of spiritual belief," says Highway. "It's a connection to this great energy, or God, which most people perceive only in moments of extreme crisis. Or when they are close to death, and can see into the spirit world."

In the case of the retarded young woman, he was thinking of a true story of a girl from his home reserve who was raped by several white men on a backwoods road. She was retarded, but, to make doubly sure of not being identified, they beat her and gouged out her eyes. They needn't have troubled—she froze to death before she was found.

In recounting this story, Highway's customary serenity and composure cracks somewhat. There is a terrible anger as he states quietly that the white men, who were known, have never to this day been prosecuted. "The racism is real. And the...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)

William Peel (review date Winter 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Rez Sisters, in Canadian Theatre Review, No. 65, Winter, 1990, pp. 62-4.

[In the following excerpt, Peel discusses the characters and narrative structure of The Rez Sisters.]

Tomson Highway succeeds in creating a striking cast of characters who reveal both blemishes and beauty, and possess, on the whole, great human dignity. His The Rez Sisters tells the tale of seven Indian women living on a reserve in northern Ontario who one day decide to travel to Toronto to attend "the Biggest Bingo in the World." The women are sisters, half-sisters, and sisters-in-law, and their ages range from the 20s to the 50s. The polarities and...

(The entire section is 783 words.)

Robert Cushman (review date 15 April 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 15, 1991, p. C3.

[In the following excerpt, Cushman asserts that Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a powerful play about misogyny.]

Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, which opened Saturday at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, begins with magic. At the side of a great, bare, tilted plat-form, white with a black surround, stands a figure, recognizably and traditionally Indian. The figure gestures, and snow falls.

After this descent another, more prosaic. A sofa is lowered from the flies. Visible upon it is a naked male body. A...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

John Bemrose (review date 29 April 1991)

SOURCE: "Native Grace: An Indian Reserve Struggles for Salvation," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 17, April 29, 1991, pp. 60-1.

[In the following review, Bemrose praises the humor and moral of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.]

Last summer, as armed Mohawks stood guard at their barricades in Oka, Que., a new image of Canada's native people forced itself on the national consciousness. But such defiance is only one aspect of the current Indian struggle for greater self-determination. Early this month at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, native people staged a different kind of event—the production of Tomson Highway's award-winning play, Dry Lips Oughts...

(The entire section is 941 words.)

Gitta Honegger (review date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: "Native Playwright: Tomson Highway," in Theater, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 88-92.

[In the following laudatory review of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Honegger discusses the play's plot, character, and main themes.]

A non-Native theatergoer sees a play written by a Native playwright. It is one of the most exciting plays she has seen in a long time. The all-Native ensemble has developed a uniquely cohesive acting style, rarely seen on our stages. The work is a brilliant combination of Western and Native performance traditions. The observer, a theater professional herself, with extensive training in Western theater has no problem ranking...

(The entire section is 3043 words.)

Tomson Highway with Robert Enright (interview date December 1992)

SOURCE: "Let Us Now Combine Mythologies: The Theatrical Art of Tomson Highway," in Border Crossings, Vol. 1, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 22-7.

[In the interview below, Highway discusses his upbringing, Native literature, mythology, and the structure of his plays.]

[Enright]: You were born on a trap line 176 miles north of Lynn Lake in the upper reaches of Manitoba. What was that experience like?

[Highway]: Back in the early '50s it was very basic. There were 12 in my family and most of us were born in tents and we lived in tents almost year 'round. In the summer time we travelled by canoe and in the winter time we travelled by dog sled. We lived...

(The entire section is 4873 words.)

David Richards (review date 5 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Bingo as the Way of Escape, at Dismal Odds," in The New York Times, January 5, 1994, pp. C15, C21.

[In the following review of the New York production of The Rez Sisters, Richards criticizes the play for its poorly plotted scenes and adolescent humor.]

It's Toronto or bust for the seven impoverished Indians whom the Canadian playwright Tomson Highway calls The Rez Sisters.

That's where "the biggest bingo in the world" is about to be held. As the raucous women envision it with mounting excitement and a feverish gleam in their dark eyes, hitting the $1 million jackpot is how they'll change their hard-scrabble existence on the...

(The entire section is 809 words.)

Roberta Imboden (essay date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: "On the Road with Tomson Highway's Blues Harmonica in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing," in Canadian Literature, No. 144, Spring, 1995, pp. 113-24.

[In the following essay, Imboden discusses the role of the blues harmonica player in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing stating that while the player does not participate in the drama as a character, "the musician's absence-presence is crucial for the full development of the play's potentiality."]

Tomson Highway observes in the Production Notes that precede his play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing:

The 'sound-scape' of Dry Lips Oughta Move to...

(The entire section is 4791 words.)

Further Reading


Grant, Agnes. "Canadian Native Literature: The Drama of George Ryga and Tomson Highway." Australian-Canadian Studies 10, No. 2 (1992): 37-56.

Compares Highway's The Rez Sisters to George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

Kirchhoff, H. J. "International Authors Festival." The Toronto Globe and Mail (23 October 1989): D7.

Discusses the awarding of the 1989 Wang Festival Prize to Tomson Highway.

Loucks, Bryan. "Another Glimpse: Excerpts from a Conversation with Tomson Highway." Canadian Theatre Review, No. 68...

(The entire section is 336 words.)