Sister act at Douglas College

Meghan Somerville.  - Submitted
Meghan Somerville.
— image credit: Submitted

Douglas College is challenging the idea that you can’t cast non-aboriginal actors in aboriginal roles in its upcoming production of one of the most famous and influential First Nations plays in Canada.

The Rez Sisters, written by Cree playwright Tomson Highway, is the latest production by the departments of Theatre and Stagecraft and Event Technology at Douglas College. The play is about seven women, each wrestling with personal demons, on a native reserve in Ontario, who dream of attending (and winning) “The Biggest Bingo in the World.”

The play runs from Nov. 9 to 17 and stars Langley resident Meghan Somerville as Annie Cook.

First performed 1986, the Rez Sisters opened to critical acclaim and sold-out houses. But since then it has rarely been staged, noted director Deborah Neville, because many theatres are afraid to take the risk of casting non-aboriginal actors in aboriginal roles.

“There was this slippery feeling that you needed to cast First Nations people in order to get the proper First Nations voice,” Neville says. “So there was this dry period where this beautiful thing went on ice because nobody would touch it.”

Two of the actors and the set and costume designer in the Douglas College production have some aboriginal lineage. The rest are non-aboriginal. To prepare for the production, Neville and the cast have been doing historical research, meeting with aboriginal groups to become more familiar with First Nations cultures, learn some dance and take a crash course in Cree.

Neville says she had no qualms using a colour-blind cast.

“I watched an interview with Tomson Highway where he was encouraging non-aboriginal theatre companies to ‘get on it, put the play up, do it.’ For me, that was my way in. It was permission.”

Neville says theatre is about “digging around and finding out who people are, and why.”

“That’s the reason I go to the theatre, to get a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be somebody else, someone whose life is perhaps very different to mine, and to really experience life through their eyes.

“It’s quite simply, and perhaps quite profoundly, a chance for one human to understand another.”

The Rez Sisters runs Nov. 9-17 at Laura C. Muir Performing Arts Theatre, Douglas College, 700 Royal Ave., New Westminster. Tickets ($8-$12) are available through the Massey Theatre, 604-521-5050.

For more info, visit douglascollege.ca.

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