- Tomson Highway (Author)
Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout. Talonbooks (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Jason Gileno (Author)
Tattoo Joint. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Alex Poch-Goldin (Author)
Yahrzeit. J. Gordon Shillingford (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Ingrid Mündel
Jason Gileno’s Tattoo Joint tells the story of Joint, a blind tattoo artist, who, in trying to escape his past has ended up in a small town, a kind of existential no-place where this witty, offbeat, and self-consciously cerebral play unfolds. The play opens with the reclusive Joint receiving a visit from Alexandra, a young woman who tells Joint, “I want you to make me invisible—because I hate the attention that this body attracts.” The thematic opposition between visibility and invisibility manifests itself in the unusual relationship between Joint and Alexandra. Joint refuses (or is denied) surface visibility not only through his blindness but also through his “invisible” tattoo parlor—there is no sign, and no one in the town even knows the tattoo place exists. Paradoxically, when he does create tattoos, he resists tattooing clichéd images that he feels only obfuscate rather than reveal beauty; rather, he “tattoo[s] in search of perfect beauty. The ideal.” In contrast, Alexandra sees herself as cursed with hyper visibility, a flawless beauty that she hopes Joint will be able to erase.
The play’s primary metaphor of visibility also reveals the dangerous edge of idealized gender stereotypes. Alexandra, as the embodiment of “ideal” beauty is literally hunted by men who see her as a fulfillment of their romantic desires. Whether the play is working more to call into question the very notion of ideals, or to challenge what people will do in the pursuit of an ideal, is unclear. Nevertheless, Gileno’s play raises interesting questions about art, embodiment, isolation, and beauty.
Tomson Highway’s Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout also tackles questions of visibility, but in this case Highway’s play works to make visible a particular history of cultural genocide in Canada: how the Native peoples of British Columbia lost their lands and their language to white settlers/invaders without their remote approval or consent. The play unfolds around a historical document, a list of grievances signed by 14 Chiefs of the Thompson River basin, and a historical event, the presentation of this signed deposition to Sir Wilfrid Laurier upon his visit to Kamloops, BC in 1910. While the play addresses 100 years leading up to the occasion of the “Great Big Kahoona of Canada’s” visit, the narrative action takes place over the course of a single day and is told from the varying perspectives of four Shuswap women, Isabel, Delilah Rose, Ernestine, and Annabelle. As the women busily prepare for meeting the Big Kahoona—baking, sewing, berry picking, hunting—they also engage in debate and dialogue about what has happened to their land and their community.
Highway explains in his introductory notes that the play is written in English, but in the “spirit of Shuswap,” (i.e. a language driven by the “Trickster” impulse) making it “hysterical, comic to the point where its ‘spill-over’ into horrifying tragedy is a thing quite normal.” Indeed, the emotionally turbulent pitch of the play is evident in the clever movement from exaggerated and playful banter one minute, to sudden, serious debate the next. What consistently anchors the emotional rise and fall of the play is the recognition that the European settlers’/invaders’ imposed notion of ownership means “they can take anything.” In fact, “they” even took the river. The sheer absurdity of “taking a river” is comically highlighted by Isabel, who exclaims, “How in the name of George and the dragon can someone come along, bend over, pick up a river, and carry it off into the distance away over yonder as if it were a sack jam-packed with potatoes?”
By the play’s end, a sense of unhinged hysteria dominates, illustrating the deep tragedy, the devastating absurdity, and the irrevocable historical consequences of the gradual loss to the Native Peoples of BC, of not only their hunting, fishing, and grazing rights, but also their land and language. While grounding the play in very specific historical details, Highway nevertheless gives emotional urgency and resonance to a history that is not and should not remain relegated to a forgotten past. He offers a visceral reminder that what happened in 1910 continues to be a lived history of injustice in Canada.
The final play, Alex Poch-Goldin’s Yahrzeit, uses inter-generational, political, and gendered tensions troubling a Jewish Canadian family to investigate difficult international conflicts in the Middle East and Europe. A stroke has left Meyer Jacobs, the cantankerous patriarch of the family, without the use of his right hand, a reality that fuels his irritable tirades and opinionated takes on everything, from proper bath etiquette to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meyer’s demanding and comic behaviour both draws in and repels those around him—Mark, his son, who expresses sympathy for the dispossessed Palestinians; Devon, an endlessly curious young African-Canadian neighbour; Jackie, Meyer’s world-wise lesbian daughter; and Ruzika, Meyer’s no-nonsense Serbian caretaker.
At the end, in an interesting analogy for the disruption of nationalistic ties under globalization, the Jacobs family’s sense of togetherness is shaken despite Mark’s and Jackie’s attempts to rally around their dying father. Mark tells Meyer, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t look after you . . . Jackie was right, she couldn’t grow here. That’s why she left.” Yet, the play suggests that the dissolving of the family/nation makes possible new kinds of growth. Like the trees that Meyer continues to buy in Israel in memory of his wife, Meyer “grows” a new family that crosses racial and ethnic boundaries to include Devon, Ruzika, and Ruzika’s sons. Yahrzeit ends with Meyer offering a utopian—if somewhat clichéd—vision of peace: “If I plant a tree, one day an Arab and a Jew can sit and share the shade.” However, Meyer’s peaceful vision seems at odds with his inability to resolve present and past conflicts with those closest to him; therefore, Ruzika’s response, “So now you are paying for the future,” can perhaps be read as a double-edged commentary that highlights both what Meyer mortgages (his past and present) and what he gains (a future of possibility) with this utopian vision.
- Marlatt Writes Gracefully into Noh by Judy Halebsky
Books reviewed: The Gull by Daphne Marlatt
- Stars and Songs by Monique Tschofen
Books reviewed: Once Upon a Time in Paradise: Canadians in the Golden Age of Hollywood by Charles Foster and The American Musical: History & Development by Peter H. Riddle
- Telling Our Stories by Sherrill Grace
Books reviewed: If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground by J. Edward Chamberlin, Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic by Rudy Wiebe, and Colours in the Storm by Jim Betts
- George Ryga Revisited by George Melnyk
Books reviewed: George Ryga: The Other Plays by James Hoffman and George Ryga: The Prairie Novels by James Hoffman
- Theatre/Théâtre by Mark Blagrave
Books reviewed: 15 Seconds by François Archambault and Bobby Theodore, The Coronation Voyage by Michel Marc Bouchard and Linda Gaboriau, Songs of the Say-Sayer by Daniel Danis and Linda Gaboriau, and Talking Bodies by Sheila Fischman and Larry Tremblay
MLA: Mündel, Ingrid. Troubling Visions. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 164 - 166)
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