Native tradition, new theatre

Comfortably perched in her desk chair, Dr. Jill Carter laughs as she huddles around the warmth of the large Second Cup coffee that she holds in her hands. “Sorry about that!” she says smiling, having just been bombarded with a myriad of questions from eager students waiting outside her office.

Carter, who identifies herself as Anishinaabe-Ashkenazi, is a faculty member in the Aboriginal Studies department at U of T. She also describes herself as an actor, a writer, a playwright, a student, and a mentor. While lecturing is her full-time job, she makes sure to include time for her greatest passion, the theatre, and for the stories that can be created on stage.

As an integral part of Native Earth Performing Arts’ newest production, Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, Carter knows all about stories. The play incorporates creation stories of different groups of indigenous peoples from all over the Americas — specifically the Haudenosaunee (Great Lakes region), Rappahannock (Virginia), and Guna (Panama) peoples — in an attempt to reclaim indigenous cultures through art. Focusing on the elemental females portrayed in these stories, the play is centred on Chocolate Woman, a Guna feminine spirit associated with the cacao plant.

Carter, who recently received her Ph.D. from the Drama Centre at U of T, is the remount director of Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, and has been involved with the play since the beginning of its production. Nestled in the warmth of her office on a blisteringly cold day, she spoke to The Varsity about Native Earth Performing Arts, and the role of theatre in the reclaiming of indigenous cultures.

THE VARSITY

How did you become involved with Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional native theatre company? 

DR. JILL CARTER

 I suppose being a young native woman, I was drawn to them… My first experience with Native Earth was seeing Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, and I remember very clearly how it galvanized me. I came up in a time when a lot of Native artists came up — you know, people who wanted to be theatre professionals [but were] not seeing their role models and… Not seeing ourselves at all on stage. And if we did see ourselves on stage… or saw what purported to be us on stage, we often saw some very ugly pictures, so it wasn’t something to be proud of. Seeing The Rez Sisters changed everything, and it changed everything for a lot of native artists, but also for mainstream [theatres]… It really put Native Earth on the map.

THE VARSITY

So you think Native Earth Performing Arts has been instrumental in jump-starting Native theatre?

DR. JILL CARTER

Oh I would say so… Although it had its financial struggles, it has been the cornerstone, I think, of native theatre in Canada. It’s been the place where artists got a voice, and where artists could become developed. They have a Young Voices program, and in that program they invite young people who are interested in playwriting… to work with professional dramaturgists… and they do a lot. I mean, they help young native artists through every stage in their careers. It is really ground zero, so to speak, still today.

 

THE VARSITY

One of the mandates of Native Earth is to encourage the use of theatre as a form of communication and dialogue. How or why do you see this as being especially important in communicating experiences unique to native peoples in contemporary society?

DR. JILL CARTER

Oh, that’s such a layered question! Twenty years ago, Canadians did not know who [natives] were. Canadians had an image of us, [but] they knew nothing of us… So having our artists come out and speak to Canada in our voice, about our concerns and through our lens was and is still crucially important today… To be the one who tells your story, that’s important. It’s interesting though because the issue has changed. Yvette Nolan [former artistic director of Native Earth] said, and I think quite rightly so, [that] at one point, the struggle — or the question — was, ‘Who gets to speak?’ Now the question is, ‘Who is listening?’  Is anybody listening? It gets awfully exhausting, educating the main populace… And many [artists] are pushing back against that and their plays are not necessarily for mainstream Canadians. Mainstream Canadians are welcome to come, to receive, to be affected, to learn, but their plays are for their own people.

I often think of theatre as urban ceremony, in the sense that it unites a scattered body politic. The best of it creates communitas; it creates that sense that we in the audience are connected to each other… The best of it offers real healing, and permanent transformations, in that we can come away knowing something we didn’t know before… I mean, I’m not saying, ‘Go see a play’ and you’re fine! But, go see this play and something begins to work within you, that medicine begins to work within you. I think it can also be a gateway to our culture. So many of us have been separated from our communities, our languages, and a venue like this can be a gateway in. It can get us understanding a little more about ourselves and [make us] curious, eager to push further and go further.

THE VARSITY

There is a lot of silence surrounding the Native community in Canada, especially for the average citizen who doesn’t go out of his or her way to become informed. Do you see Native Earth playing a role in filling that silence?

 DR. JILL CARTER

I think it is, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. We don’t necessarily live in a theatre-going nation… So there are those that love the live experience and who come to see the theatre. But there are many who don’t, and we know that, and that’s certainly been an issue with Native Earth, an issue that is shared by theatres across Canada. The one thing you hear from [Canadian theatres] is the struggle, dare I be crude, to get bums in seats, and to bring people out… So there is always that struggle and certainly Native Earth has not been immune to that. But when we think of how many people in Toronto will be touched and educated by a piece, [it’s] not many. So Native Earth is part of something that must be larger. However, the thing about Native Earth is that in its support of plays and artists… it allows that work [to maintain] life after the production… These plays are published texts, they have a life in remounts and on tour, other theatres take it up, and I think this can all be traced back to the ministrations of companies like Native Earth.

THE VARSITY

Can you tell us a little bit about the idea behind Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, and how it goes about reclaiming Indigenous cultures through art?

DR. JILL CARTER

I’ve been involved with Chocolate Woman since its inception in 2007… It began before that however as a drive, or a need that Monique Mojica [the play’s author] had. Monique was going through a very serious… Time in her life. [She] required healing, required something to get up and go on, and began to look back at Creation stories, and the elemental females of Creation. And I say Creation stories and elemental females, because Monique is Guna and Rappahannock… She is also by marriage and adoption Haudenosaunee. Since she has all of this cultural material to draw on, the show is an interweave.

Chocolate Woman is a Guna figure, an elemental female, I hesitate to use the word goddess because it’s not the same thing, but she is this feminine spirit that is associated with the cacao. Cacao for Guna people is a medicine… But it can also work at you from the outside in, can shield you from your enemies. So this cacao is really important. [Mojica met] with a Guna consultant and traditional teacher, who taught her these songs and stories. Rather than adopting Western theatrical form, she went back to tradition and ceremony to figure out how to… tell an ancient story to a contemporary audience, with contemporary expectations, in a contemporary venue, but to be able to affect the audience as an original rendering of the story would have affected traditional people.

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