The Herd by Kenneth T. Williams is a coproduction by three theatre companies spanning much of Canada. The companies involved are the Citadel Theatre of Edmonton, the Tarragon Theatre of Toronto and the National Arts Centre – Indigenous Theatre of Ottawa. The big advantage of the cooperative production is that the play will be performed in three major cities for a start. More importantly however, it is a play by an indigenous playwright and the cast and almost entire creative team are indigenous and the play deals with indigenous issues. It is something that all Canadians should applaud.
The play deals with the lives of people of a First Nation relating ostensibly to the fate of a herd of bison. The background facts of the fate of the bison and life on a reservation for the indigenous people should be well-known. There were millions of bison across North America and they were systematically slaughtered to the verge of extinction. They are now surviving in national parks and as highly desirable meat in herds raised by private businesses.
How people live on the reservation is, of course, far more germane. There is a lack of potable water, lack of jobs and lack of other amenities. The situation is deplorable to the core.
The play has five characters and the catalytical issue is the birth of two white bison calves. Are they mutants or are they the result of genetic engineering or are they the beginning of the revival of the bison population? There is a prophecy, we are told, that the bison will return in their former plentitude.
These are the conflicting possibilities as we meet the people of the play. And they are a colourful group. The geneticist Dr. Vanessa Brokenhorn (Tai Amy Grauman) is a no-nonsense scientist who is trying to solve the puzzle of the birth of the twins through research. Her brother Michael “Baby Pete” Brokenhorn (Dylan Thomas-Bouchier) is the well-intentioned but rather ineffectual chief. He received some money from a settlement (I think it was from the death of his parents in car crash) and he is willing to spend it to get drinkable water for his people. They have had to boil their water for twenty years. He sees an opportunity to save the reserve from poverty by making the bison a lucrative business.
Coyote Jackson (Todd Houseman) is a clownish reporter-warrior-blogger running around with his cell phone on a selfie stick. One is not sure what to make of him. Is he a satiric figure, are we to take him seriously or is he just a clown?
Sheila Kennedy (Shyanne Duquette) is a decent woman who likes to play radio bingo, keeps in touch with the elders, and is one who recalls the prophecy.
Aislinn Kennedy (Cheyenne Scott) is a native, related to Sheila who arrives from Ireland as a representative of the European Union looking for business opportunities in the sale of bison. Scott speaks with a bizarre accent that (I think) is supposed to be Irish that needs more polish and consistency. The character is unconvincing and the idea that the EU is trying to grab bison from a Canadian First Nation is not supported in the play.
The play for all its virtues in bringing the life of a First Nation to the fore lacks focus and cohesion. Modern science trying to untangle a complex genetic issue that may be a rare mutation, or the survival of a cattle gene is taking us far. The idea of the fulfillment of a prophecy that would have nothing to do with science but everything with religion takes far in another direction. The commercial prospects of selling highly marketable bison meat to Europe goes in another uncharted route. Not to mention the other issues. In short, we need more focus and sounder development of the characters involved.
Director Tara Beagan may have chosen to keep a tighter grip on the characterization of the roles, especially of Coyote Jackson and Aislinn Kennedy. The play could gain from some editing to give it more focus. We do not expect it to have solutions but would like it to hit us in the face with the problems faced by First Nations.
The play and the production will hopefully travel across Canada and act as a catalyst for our First Nations’ taking centre stage in Canada’s cultural life and making it unnecessary for that fact to be mentioned. It should be just a part of Canadian life.
The Herd by Kenneth T. Williams opened on May 11 and will continue until June 12, 2022, at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com/