Berlin Blues skewers stereotypes

Herbie Barnes and Cheri Maracle as Berlin Blues' Trailer and Donalda. Photo by Wayne Eardley

Berlin Blues is so funny, it’s easy to forget it’s a cautionary tale. The play, which opened at the 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook last week, explores a First Nations community’s struggle with identity and integrity when faced with a proposal by German developers to exploit their Native culture. And the effects are hilarious.

The proposed development is “Ojibway World,” a theme park – replete with “bumper canoes,” a “medicine Ferris wheel,” daily caribou migrations, and a hotel called the “Haida-way” – promising economic benefits for the community. But it becomes “a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” according to playwright Drew Haydon Taylor. The characters must decide if Dances With Wolves: The Musical is really how they want to present themselves to the world. Playing with both Native and German stereotypes, Taylor examines the meaning of cultural identity with unpredictable results.

Set on the fictional reserve of Otter Lake, the premise of the play sprang from the real-life scenario of a casino development that was presented to – and rejected by – the band council at Curve Lake First Nation Reserve (near Peterborough), where Taylor lives. What if the community had said “yes,” wondered Taylor, where would it have led to, and what effect would it have had on the residents? Berlin Blues answers those questions, with farcical – and yet, in our overtly commercialized culture, almost plausible – results.

Having written 23 plays, two novels, a series of anthologies, and numerous articles for The Globe & Mail, The Toronto Star, and Maclean’s, as well as completing a 3-year stint writing for a sitcom on APTN, Taylor says he sees his work as “the next logical extension of oral story telling.” His writing has won awards for fiction, theatre and television, including two nominations for the Governor General’s Award for fiction.

While he is a fan of both popular and serious literature, Taylor allows that he has “often been a critic of pop culture and its portrayal of Native culture – sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes it’s not.” Without shying away from the negative effects of the dominant European culture on First Nations people, he says he wants “to celebrate the positive aspects” in Native stories. “I find humour to be a very healing side effect in the telling of Native stories,” he says.

With physical features more indicative of the Caucasian father he never knew than of his Ojibway – or Anishinaabe – mother, who raised him on the reserve, Taylor must have at times felt he was born to take stereotypes and turn them on their heads. And, judging by his works, he enjoys doing so. As his anthologies Funny, You Don’t Look Like One, and Further Observations of a Blue-Eyed Ojibway suggest, he is renowned for taking common cultural misconceptions and having fun with them.

In fact, he is recognized as a specialist when it comes to Native literature, culture, and humour, frequently lecturing at universities. In October, he will be taking his 12th trip to Germany for a university lecture tour. It was while he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Luneburg in Hamburg, Germany that Taylor first discovered that country’s century-long fascination with Native culture.

“In the late 1800s, a German writer named Karl May wrote a series of romantic adventure stories about the Old West, “explains Taylor. The tales presented the idealized notion of the “noble savage” and appealed to Germans, who were also traditionally a tribal culture. “These stories have remained popular for six or seven generations. After discovering this intense fascination Germans have with Native culture, I wanted to explore it in a humourous way.”

The result is Berlin Blues, a play told from the Native perspective, with the four main characters all being First Nations (the actors who portray them are also all of Native heritage): Andrew, a police constable on the reserve; his girlfriend Angie, who works at the reserve’s gift shop; and their friends Donalda, the band council’s economic development officer, and Trailer, the resident ne’er-do-well who lives in a trailer. Each of these four characters finds themselves caught between the desire to improve their lives, and the need to protect their culture.

Director Kim Blackwell has assembled a strong cast, starting with Clifford Cardinal, who plays Andrew with style and energy, and whose strong vocals really impress in the last of the play’s three musical numbers. Right from the opening scene, Andrew is struggling with his dual roles, caught between the demands of his job, and the demands of his family – and with $264 million at stake, the conflict he faces can only escalate.

Angie is played with gusto by Patti Shaughnessy. Angie bristles as she relates how she has to sell “authentically Native” buckskin-scented shampoo to European tourists. The most politically aware of the characters, she recognizes the need to “balance righteous indignation with the need to eat,” yet events make her become more radical as the play progresses.

The practical, but culturally lost Donalda is played with aplomb by Cheri Maracle (Moccasin Flats, Blackfly). Donalda believes it’s in the community’s best interests to go forward with the project, but starts to have second thoughts when she realizes that Ojibway World won’t “change everybody’s life for the better.” Her political awakening coincides with a more personal awakening.

Herbie Barnes (Dance Me Outside, The Rez) is an indefatigable scene stealer as Trailer, who morphs from being unrepentantly unemployed to being obsessively ambitious. The clownish Trailer becomes increasingly self-absorbed, at the expense of his community, leading to a moment of reckoning.

The cast is rounded out by veteran Toronto actor Cynthia Ashperger playing the domineering German developer Birgit, 4th Line’s artistic director Robert Winslow as the accuracy-obsessed German architect Reinhart, and Renate Spasov as their silent but tireless assistant.

Ashperger shines as the flamboyant and manipulative Birgit, while the usually serious Winslow reveals himself to be remarkably funny. Reinhart’s enthusiastic knowledge of Native culture is one of the play’s running gags, and Winslow’s deadpan delivery of facts about bison and dream catchers to the baffled Native characters provides for some of the best comic moments in the play.

Brad Brackenridge’s life-size buffalo puppet is delightfully expressive, commanding our attention as it playfully fulfills the script’s requirement of a buffalo stampede, while Julia Tribe’s costume design is thoughtfully chosen, as it outwardly reflects the inner transformations of the main characters.

Berlin Blues is a pleasure to see, and a worthy production to open 4th Line’s 20th season. It runs at 6 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays up to July 23, with an added performance on Monday, July 18. Tickets are $30 for Adults and $26 for Youth (5-16), and are available online at www.4thlinetheatre.on.ca or by calling 1-800-814-0055. The 4th Line Theatre is located at the Winslow Farm, 779 Zion Line, just five minutes south of Millbrook.

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