It’s an Outrage!:

Edmonton Journal (Alberta)
June 14, 2004 Monday Final Edition

It’s an Outrage!: Canadian superstar playwright Tomson Highway
trashes PC police on eve of Magnetic North debut

by Liz Nicholls

EDMONTON — Something about Canadian theatre is making one of its
signature playwrights really really mad. It may be driving him right
out the stage door. In a nutshell, it’s political correctness. But
not the lack of it.

It’s midnight, and the ebullient Tomson Highway is on the blower from
a vast 19th-century Toronto mansion someone’s lent him while he
teaches a U of T course on aboriginal mythology. He and his partner
Raymond Lalonde are just back from their usual six-month exile in the
south of France: “The Inuit may have 40 words for snow, but the
French have 350 words for cheese,” he says.

He’s just thrown a birthday party for his brother-in-law (with
numerous of his 175 nephews and nieces in attendance), and a good
time was had by all. Tonight his raucous tragi-comedy Ernestine
Shuswap Gets Her Trout, his first play in a decade, opens at our
Magnetic North Festival.

It’s all good. “I’m 52 years old and I could die tomorrow and say
I’ve had a fabulous life.”

However, Tomson Highway is not a happy man.

The puckish author of such groundbreaking international hits as The
Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing is used to taking
shivs from both the white and native communities for his defence of
colour-blind casting. He’s convinced that’s why his plays, studied in
universities on both sides of the Atlantic, are so rarely produced.
Given the PC realities, they’re virtually impossible to cast without
offending someone or inviting the “cultural appropriation” charge.
Theatres are afraid to cast white actors as native characters.
Kamloops’ Western Canada Theatre, for whom Ernestine was written,
will undoubtedly take some heat for having a couple of white actors
in its four-member cast.

“Telling someone like me I have to put on a show with only native
actors is like telling Shakespeare he can only have Danish actors in
Hamlet, or Scottish actors in the Scottish Play,” declares Highway,
warming to the subject with his usual vigour. “What if they told
Jason Sherman he had to use only Jewish actors for the rest of his
life? Or Brecht should be limited to German actors to the end of
time? Does Atom Egoyan have to use only Armenians? Do you need Greeks
to do Medea?

“I only want the same freedom white playwrights have. Otherwise it’s
racist. Why should I be limited to native actors because I’m Indian?”

Highway, who went to see a production of Verdi’s Macbett in
Barcelona, notes tartly that “an Italian set to music something with
Scottish characters by an English writer, with 72 Spanish actors on
the stage… . Not one was Scottish!

“I get criticized and I don’t care,” he says. And indeed he’s been
steadfast in his objections over the years. “Every real artist has
always taken heat. It’s our job to take heat. Artists have been
imprisoned, tortured, executed for breaking the status quo. This is
nothing by comparison.”

The bottom line is that “people are trying to tell me how to do my
job and I don’t appreciate it… . There’s an element of fascism,
yes, and it’s disturbing. I lose a lot of work; people are scared to
rock the boat of political correctness. It may be great for native
actors (to insist on all-native casts), but if this continues it may
be the last time I ever write.”

He is not sympathetic to resentment from native actors when parts in
his plays go to white actors. “That’s showbiz man. If you can’t take
the heat, get the **** out of the kitchen.”

There have been easier beginnings to a script than the proposition he
was offered by WCT’s David Ross, who handed Highway a 1910 document
in which 12 chiefs of reserves surrounding Kamloops presented their
list of land-claim grievances to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier on an
official visit.

“Honestly, I had no idea what to do.” He laughs his mischievous
laugh. “So I decided to write about their wives.”

The play, he says, takes us “backstage at the main event, where the
women are cooking a dinner of mythical proportions before the arrival
of the dignitaries. Momentum builds. It’s very funny.”

There’s another stratum, of course, to a play that invokes land
claims. Especially since “we’re in the midst of reinventing a new
reality in Canada that includes native artists,” as Highway, the
self-styled “die-hard optimist,” says.

“We’re not going to go away. We love it here and we’re going to be
here always. So we need to keep asking certain questions. What
exactly is our place in the mosaic? How can we make ourselves
relevant? Artists are in the front line.”

[email protected]

Tomson Highway speaks Thursday

in the Timms Lobby at 6:30 p.m.


Ernestine Shuswap

Gets Her Trout

Directed by: David Ross

Starring: Isabel Thompson, Rose Johnson, Janet Michael,

Lisa C. Ravensbergen

Where: Timms Centre For The Arts

Running: Tonight through Friday

GRAPHIC: Photo: Kevin Van Paassen, National Post; Tomson Highway,
ducking from calls of “cultural appropriation,” has no qualms about
companies casting white actors in his plays, including Ernestine
Shuswap Gets Her Trout, at left.; Photo: Kevin Van Paassen, National
Post; (Scene from Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout)