Sandy Bay actor lights up Toronto theatre scene

By Kelly Roulette

Reprinted with permission from
Saskatchewan Sage - February 1997 - pg. 7

Kennetch Charlette

Like the character he played on stage in Toronto last fall, actor Kennetch Charlette is charismatic and has a laid back approach to life. Another similarity to the fictional Tonto, from the play Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, is that he is also on a spiritual quest -- one that includes sweat lodges, sun dances and a traditional way of thinking.

But that's whre the resemblance ends. Unlike Tonto, Charlette's quest includes a goal to see First Nations people realistically depicted on stage, film and television. A goal, he says, that would help heal the Native spirit.

"Not that we should ignore the ugliness of our past, but embrace it and deal with it -- that's healthy," he said. "We can do that by starting to depict ourselves, tell our own stories, which is something I hope to do through my work. Most of the stuff we see today is still Hollywood stereotypical. The movie Dances With Wolves was probably the first time Natives were portrayed as real people."

Charlette, a Cree born on the Sandy Bay reserve in Saskatchewan, began his acting career in 1986, when he got a small speaking part in the National Film Board miniseries Daughters of our Country, which aired on television across Canada.

"Of course, I had to lie my way through it," he recalled, jokingly, of his first acting audition. "I had absolutely no acting experience, but I told the directors I took drama in high school."

The role landed him another part in the series, which, in turn, got him more acquainted with the Native acting community in Winnipeg, where he lived at the time.

After some pressure from acting friends and seeing the money he could make as an actor, Charlette decided to quit his six year job with CN Rail and move to Toronto to take theater school.

On his first night there, he met Gary Farmer and Graham Greene, both of whom are now famous for roles in movies such as Powwow Highway and Dances with Wolves. Later, he would meet award-winning playwright Tomson Highway.

Charlette would get cast as the character Dickie Bird Halked in Highway's play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

In addition to having a say on what's being written about Native people and issues, Charlette says the workshops provide a cathartic outlet for him to deal with his own past of alcohol abuse.

"There are broken circles we need to mend, and vicious circles we need to break," he said. "The thing is to figure out which is which. I think Native spirituality, in the long run, is going to help."

This spring, he's scheduled to perform in the Native Earth Performing Arts production of Sixty Below, by Leonard Linklater and Patti Flather. The show runs from April 3 to the 20th, at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto.

Drew Hayden Taylor author of Only Drunks and Children, wasn't surprised that Charlette's portrayal of Tonto earned him a nomination at last year's Dora Mavor Moore awards for best actor.

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