People don’t normally think of the posh Vancouver neighbourhood of Point Grey as a fulcrum of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. But this is the setting for White Noise, a comedic play written by Taran Kootenhayoo about two families from very different backgrounds having dinner during Truth and Reconciliation Week.
In this remount of the Firehall Arts Society and Savage Society production, acting veteran Cheri Maracle plays Ts’ekwi, the Indigenous mother of Windwalker (Braiden Houle). In a phone interview with Pancouver, Maracle describes Ts’ekwi as truthful, fair, direct, and modern yet traditional. She’s the cultural moral compass for her family.
“She makes a promise to her son after he sells an app to Microsoft that they’re going to try and live in the city for a year,” Maracle says. “So they all up and move to Point Grey, which is, of course, night and day from the rez where they’ve been living.”
Maracle, who’s of Mohawk and Irish ancestry, acknowledges that as an Indigenous woman, it’s sometimes challenging to speak her character’s words.
“It’s been very triggering and emotionally draining, but I go forward,” she says.
At the same, Maracle emphasizes that White Noise is a funny show and her character has a genuine sense of humour. But digging deeper has unleashed a roller coaster of feelings.
“This piece is just so layered and detailed and nuanced,” she adds. “It’s a lot to investigate as an actress. I mean, it just resonates. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
The playwright, Kootenhayoo, was a beloved Vancouver actor in addition to being a playwright. His many friends were horrified when he died at the age of 27 on New Year’s Eve in 2020.
White Noise like a homecoming
Maracle met Kootenhayoo when she workshopped White Noise in 2017 in Toronto at Weesageechak with the Native Earth Performing Arts Society. While she hung out with him briefly, she says that she didn’t know Kootenhayoo very well.
“Clearly, he had a strong respect for women,” Maracle says. “It really shows up in this script.”
She adds that there are a lot of powerhouse matriarchal women in Indigenous cultures—and Kootenhayoo, a member of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, clearly recognized this.
“He just was a wonderful, surprisingly in-depth, thoughtful writer,” Maracle continues. “His voice is definitely missed. I think he would have given us some great pieces.”
For Maracle, performing in White Noise at the Firehall Arts Centre is like a homecoming of sorts. The multi-award nominated actor grew up on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, but also lived in Bella Bella and Prince Rupert. She performed her first professional theatre role in the Downtown Eastside venue more than 30 years ago. This came after freshly graduating from Capilano University.
She has since returned about six times, including in 2021 for her one-woman show Paddle Song. It was about pioneering and innovative mixed-race poet Pauline Johnson.
Meanwhile, Firehall Arts Centre artistic director Donna Spencer has stepped in to direct the remount of White Noise. This became necessary after the original director, Renae Morriseau, had to leave to deal with a family issue.
“In regard to Donna, she has helped shape who I am as an artist today, through her choices of Indigenous works she’s chosen to present and the opportunities she has graciously given me,” Maracle says. “She’s positively influenced the Indigenous theatre mosaic through consecutive bold theatre contributions over the last few decades.”
Over the years, she’s often been asked if she’s related to one of B.C.’s great Indigenous writers and poets, Lee Maracle, who died in 2021 at the age of 71.
“Lee was actually a Maracle through marriage,” Maracle says. “She married my cousin…and just kept the name.”
Maracle applauds bravery of young artists
In addition to Paddle Song and many other theatrical productions, Maracle has acted in the TV series Blackfly, Unsettled, and Moccasin Flats.
Maracle says that her career began not long after excitement over Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves had started to die down.
“There was a whole crop of Native artists and actors who came up then,” she recalls.
Since then, there’s been growing awareness about decolonization. That was spurred on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its report in 2015. All of this coincided with a blossoming of Indigenous theatre, which Maracle refers to as “transformative”.
“The younger artists these days amaze me,” she says. “They are so brave. They say the truth.”
Her grandparents on her father’s side attended a residential school, which makes her a second-generation survivor. Maracle is very aware that her career blossomed during a historically significant period.
“It’s a wonderful time and it’s a painful time as well,” Maracle says. “But it’s something that we completely need to address and we’re doing it in front of the world. And the world does need to listen and give us the respect that’s been long deserved with regards to our history.”
Moreover, she feels that facing the truth is painful and scary, yet also beautiful. She likens it to “ripping the Band-Aid off in front of everyone”.
“It just paves the way for us to be healthier as people, as human beings, on this planet and on Turtle Island,” Maracle declares.
The Firehall Arts Centre and Savage Society present White Noise from Saturday (April 15) to May 7 at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova Street). Opening night is April 19. For tickets and more information, visit the Firehall website. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.