Almighty Voice and His Wife (1991) by Daniel David Moses is a Canadian classic. It is an important play because it presents Canadian history from a First Nations point of view. In effect, it confronts the audience with all manner of cultural stereotypes that makes for an uncomfortable evening in the theatre – if you are not an Aboriginal person, that is. Under director Jani Lauzon, Soulpepper has given Almighty Voice and His Wife a very impressive and well-deserved production.
The wellspring of the play is the life and death of the real life Saskatchewan Cree warrior Almighty Voice (James Dallas Smith). Around 1895, he stole a cow for his wedding feast when he married White Girl (Michaela Washburn), which landed him in jail. Almighty Voice killed a Mountie in his escape, which led to a two-year manhunt. Apparently it took 100 Mounties and civilians, and two cannons to kill Almighty Voice and his two companions.
Moses sets up a fascinating structure for the play. The first act presents the couple in a very realistic setting, revealing their love story, and an idealized tribal life. Projections announce each scene, as we see their meeting, courtship, wedding, and life together, where spiritual traditions and the importance of elders play an important part. They both have visions that they absolutely believe. The couple’s conversations give us a view of the White culture from a First Nations point of view, which literally turns conventional ideas on their heads. For example, when White Girl is talking about her time in a residential school, she describes how she was told that she would live forever if she marries the White man’s god. When their difficulties over the stolen cow begin, she counsels her husband that they should use their White names (Mary and Jean Baptiste) so the White god will look for those people, and not Almighty Voice and White Girl.
The second act is an abrupt change of scene. Almighty Voice has become Ghost, and White Girl, dressed like a Mountie, is the Interlocutor in what amounts to an Aboriginal version of a Black minstrel show. Ghost just wants to perform his dance of death to reach the spirit world, but the Interlocutor keeps dragging him to perform in the vaudeville, replete with the scene names on easels. The minstrel show is aimed at a White audience by presenting their stereotypes, clichés, prejudices, expectations and assumptions of just who “Indians” are. This second act is vicious satire and parody, as Moses uses bad puns (“His leg is gone – talk about Wounded Knee!”; “Hey Pontiac, how’s the engine?”), bad jokes (Q: “How many Indians does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: “What’ a light bulb?”), and new, acerbic lyrics to familiar songs (“God Save the Queen”, “Amazing Grace”). The playwright’s aim is to skewer and challenge the perceptions of the White audience, with the overall message being that the Whites, since first contact, have clearly been responsible for manipulating the supposed image of the “Indian”. Perhaps the greatest question that Moses raises is the question of identity.
Director Lauzon is very familiar with the play, having performed the role of White Girl/Interlocutor at the 1991 premiere, and her deep understanding underpins the sharpness of this production. Act One is a dreamy, slow-paced affair, as opposed to the fast-moving, very caustic and mordant Act Two. The contrast between the two actors is also very pronounced. Washburn takes the lead throughout, whether as feisty wife, or nasty master of ceremonies, while Smith is more passive. Washburn’s Interlocutor is absolutely brilliant, and she is tone-perfect as the instigator and provocateur. For his part, Smith’s Ghost and his almost docility and understandable confusion help gain our sympathy, and close to the end, Ghost’s appeal to the audience to get him out of the role the Interlocutor is forcing on him, is very affecting.
Once again the production values are first rate including Ken MacKenzie’s evocative set and video design, Kinoo Arcentales’ authentic-looking costumes, and Jennifer Lennon’s lighting, gentle for the first act, and glaring for the second. Marc Merilainen does a great job with the music, as does Brian Solomon with the choreography. As a sign of these politically correct times, no less than five Indigenous people served as various advisors and consultants. In fact, one of them is a descendent of Almighty Voice.
The “Show Indian” who is the source of the minstrel show’s entertainment is not easy to watch. Almighty Voice and His Wife certainly makes a White audience take a close look at the impact of European colonization that is at the crux of the Indigenous power movements afoot in the land.
Soulpepper, Almighty Voice and His Wife by Daniel David Moses, directed by Jani Lauzon, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Oct. 11 to Nov. 10, 2019.