A long time ago in a province far, far away, I spent nearly a year living and working on a remote northern First Nations reserve. It was an eye-opening, educational experience in many ways. One minor detail I recall from that period was being surprised, at first, by how many of my Indigenous neighbours routinely referred to themselves and each other as Indians, despite that being a rather politically incorrect term even then.
In a recent CBC interview about his 2018 play, Cottagers and Indians (now playing at the Watermark Theatre), award-winning Ojibwe playwright Drew Hayden Taylor says the term “Indian” is still common parlance among his people and even retains legal weight via lingering government terminology like the Indian Act. Folks uncomfortable with the word, he says, are “usually white people”; regardless, Taylor uses the term somewhat ironically in his play’s title as a twist on the old cowboys-and-Indians phrase.
An even more potent and ubiquitous word in Taylor’s play might be manoomin, a.k.a. wild rice. Taylor based his play on a real-life dispute between Indigenous activist James Whetung and the cottagers of Pigeon Lake in Ontario. Whetung has been planting and harvesting manoomin in the area’s waters for years, promoting the crop’s culinary, nutritional and medicinal merits as well as its Indigenous cultural and spiritual significance; however, some cottagers feel the tall rice plants are spoiling their views, undermining swimming & boating safety and lowering property values.
Taylor’s gently comedic, occasionally bitter two-hander dramatizes the controversy via a clash of two fictional proxies: jokily folksy yet scrappy Whetung stand-in Arthur Copper (played here by Gordon Patrick White), and well-heeled, oh-so-white cottager Maureen Poole (Geneviève Steele), radiating clueless entitlement.
While Taylor’s real-world sympathies openly lie more with Whetung (whose fictional surrogate Copper gets most of the best lines and has more compelling cultural grievances than Poole), the play does make both characters multi-layered and sympathetic as we learn more about them. Taylor’s quarrelers are more alike than either cares to admit, including a shared myopically self-righteous streak that makes it hard for them to find common ground.
Co-directed by Jay Northcott and Watermark artistic director Robert Tsonos, Cottagers and Indians is the first show to reflect Watermark’s recently revised mandate, which now includes contemporary plays as well as vintage classics, seeking to offer a more diverse range of perspectives. This show marks a reasonably solid debut for the new programming format. It’s a smart, funny play, but it’s also largely low-key and low-stakes, with a rather subdued energy perhaps stemming from the fact that much of the show is delivered as monologues with the characters only occasionally interacting.
The creative team makes the most of the material. White’s oft-dry comedic delivery and sly storyteller cadence evoke the late, great Stuart McLean; Steele’s amusingly uptown, uptight vibe is pleasantly reminiscent of Jane Curtin; and Cory Sincennes’ half-concrete, half-impressionistic set, with a dock that recedes into the simulated distance and morphs into a chimney-like component of the cottage behind it, provides a simple but appealing backdrop. It’s not the most moving or memorable play of Watermark’s 2021 season, but Taylor’s nuanced, witty rice war offers plentiful food for thought.