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.)