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The Rez Sisters is the story of seven women on "the rez" who fight and bitch but always care no matter what. The women are all strong characters and when they clash, sparks fly. When they need support, they are there for each other. The women accept each other whether it be their sexuality, their point of view or their life exeriences. Humor helps them (and us) get through the black times.
Written by Tomson Highway, a Cree from the Brochet reserve in northwestern Manitoba, The Rez Sisters is a gutsy, gritty, funny, risk taking piece of work from any Canadian writer let alone an Indian male playwright writing about Indian women. One could say that The Rez Sisters is a play about seven reserve women who decide to go to the "Biggest Bingo in the World", in Toronto, a nights drive from their Manitoulin Island home, but like any good piece of art, this play is full of light and shadows, mysteries and secrets. It touches the shadowy places of the heart and worries our finite conceptions of reality, and gratefully it upsets our static notions of what "Indian" theatre should be.
When Annie Cook hears from her daughter (who is married to a white guy) that the World's Largest Bingo will be held in Toronto, the women decide to go. Each has a different dream of what she will do with the prize money. Pelajia Patchnose wants to pave all the roads on the Rez so Nanabush will come back and dance. Philomena Moosetail wants a shinny new bathroom. Marie-Adele Starblanket who is dying of cancer, wants an Island where she can live with her husband and fourteen kids.
Annie Cook (whose daughter is married to a white guy) wants the worlds largest record player and all of Patsy Clines' albums. Emily Dictionary, an ex-biker and abused wife, wants to go along for the excitement. Veronique St. Pierre, who is childless, wants the world's largest stove so she can cook for all the children on the reserve. Zhaboonigan Peterson is a mentally handicapped woman, Veronique's adopted daughter.
Zhaboonigan goes along on the trip even though the audience would be relieved if she just faded out of the play. Zhaboonigan is most difficult to watch. She is spastic and has difficulty speaking. Sally Singal plays her with great integrity and concentration. The audience is forced to come to terms with Zhaboonigan and recognize her as more than the resident idiot. Zhaboonigan is one of those memorable characters who typifies both mystery and inalienable truth. In a time and place where too many mentally handicapped people are hidden away in institutions, the women of the reserve accept her, care for her and love her with the tough, gritty love they ultimately share for each other and the life they live.
While Tomson Highway takes a risk with the characterization of Zhaboonigan, he takes a flying leap off a high cliff with his depiction of Nanabush. For those of us who were raised on stories of the trickster, Nanabush is easily accepted as a sea gull, a seducer, a fast talking Bingo cryer and the one who takes you to the other side. But to mainstream theatre goers in this country, the Character of Nanabush is at worst an irritating ambiguity and at best a mystery which they willingly admit they don't understand.
The Rez Sisters marks a milestone in the development of truly indigenous theatre because Tom son Highway has had the guts and the determination to bring Nanabush to the stage without compromising his own artistic vision nor the mystery and integrity of this multi-layered, complex character. In the end what the audience takes away from the theatre is as much as the trickster allows. You can leave laughing and refreshed with the healing power of the great cosmic joke or you can leave shocked at the F words and irritated by the audacity of an Indian playwright who dares to boot you in the ass of your liberal sensibilities.
You will not come away from a night of The Rez Sisters indifferent and that's what good theatre is all about.