Bannock Republic offers bittersweet laughs

If you're looking for a taste of aboriginal humour, try Bannock Republic. A pared-down performance of the latest work by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams will be held tonight at the Old Fire Hall.

If you’re looking for a taste of aboriginal humour, try Bannock Republic.

A pared-down performance of the latest work by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams will be held tonight at the Old Fire Hall.

This is a reading, not a full-fledged theatrical production. The actors will remain seated and read their lines. Think of it as live radio-drama, without the radio.

It’s part of Gwaandak Theatre’s first summer reading series. The goal is to give the audience a taste of aboriginal theatre, without the hassle of putting on a complete dramatic production.

After all, it’s summer.

“Everyone wants to get out and enjoy the great Yukon outdoors, including us,” said Leonard Linklater, one of Gwaandak’s co-artistic directors. “We don’t want to be stuck in full production.”

The Saskatoon StarPhoenix called Bannock Republic “deep and meaningful, deadly serious and hard-hitting. At the same time, it’s uproariously funny.” It pokes fun at nepotism in native bands, New Age mysticism and a lot more.

Jacob Thunderchild, played by Charles Eshleman, is a freewheeling APTN television journalist who is barely clinging to sobriety. Isaac Thunderchild, played by Sean Smith, is Jacob’s estranged cousin and the earnest, newly elected band chief.

Destiny Charles, played by Melaina Sheldon, is a fiery consultant appointed by Ottawa to manage the band’s finances. To complicate matters, she bears a striking resemblance to Isaac’s dead wife.

Sheldon, 29, was struck by how the script expressed thoughts that many First Nation residents dare not say aloud – at least not in public.

For example, her character’s grandparents moved away from their reserve because they “didn’t have the right name”- in other words, they didn’t belong to one of the powerful families, and so lacked the political connections to obtain jobs and other favours.

“I feel OK to say that because the play says it,” said Sheldon, who grew up in Teslin. “But it’s true.”

She also appreciated how each of the three characters, despite their flaws, are smart and talented. It’s a nod to how First Nations people, whatever their struggles, need not set their sights low.

It’s Sheldon’s theatrical debut. Not having to memorize lines makes the performance less daunting than a full dramatic production. And, having gone through the experience, she now aspires to write a script of her own.

“It encouraged me to be bolder and to explore different pathways.”

The summer series kicked off last month with a performance of Sixty Below, a play written in 1989 by Patti Flather and Linklater. It ends with a production of Tomson Highway’s Rez Sisters next Wednesday.

What all three plays have in common is their use of humour to tackle serious social problems. That’s no accident, said Linklater.

“I think a lot of lives in these colonized worlds are very dismal. There’s not a lot of hope. That’s what colonization does to people: it takes away their hope, their identity, their self-worth, and leaves them with very little in terms of a future. All you can do is laugh at it.

“There’s a very well developed sense of humour in First Nations communities because of it. When you have nothing else … and you have nothing to go to that will reinforce what you are, there’s just one thing to do, and that’s laugh.”

Gwaandak Theatre’s audiences are often pretty pale, and non-native attendees often wonders whether they’re supposed to laugh at wisecracks aimed at such weighty issues.

Don’t hold back, said Linklater. “We’d love it if you laughed.”

Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.