The Rez Sisters
TOMSON HIGHWAY 1986
When The Rez Sisters was first performed in 1986, Canadian and American audiences took note of this new and offbeat play by Native North American playwright Tomson Highway. A Cree Native of Manitoba, Canada, Highway wanted to make life on the reservation (or ‘the rez’) seem “cool” and “show and celebrate what funky folk Canada’s Indian people really are.” His goals were met with this play, which received high praise (winning the Dora Mavor Award for best new play in Toronto’s 1986-87 theater season and being named a runner-up for the Floyd F. Chalmers Award for the outstanding Canadian play of 1986). The Rez Sisters also proved to be a commercial success, playing to sold-out audiences during a cross-Canada tour from October to February of 1988. Audiences found Highway’s portrait of seven “rez sisters” to be, as William Peel called them in Canadian Theatre Review, “a striking cast of characters who reveal both blemishes and beauty” and who “possess, on the whole, great human dignity.”
The play spans a summer in 1986, when seven women (all related by birth or marriage) decide to travel to Toronto to participate in “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD.” Each woman offers the audience a different attitude toward life on the reservation—as well as their individual dreams of escaping it. From Pelajia Patchnose, who hopes to win enough money to bring paved roads to “Wasy” (their reservation), to Emily Dictionary, an ex-biker whose rough-and-ready outlook creates some Page 200 | Top of Articlefriction in the group, these characters display the natural desire to rise above their surroundings and create a better world for their children and each other.
The Rez Sisters was lauded for its realistic portrayal of these distinct personalities. On a larger scale, Highway was hailed for creating a work that made Native North American life accessible as well as entertaining to a wide audience.
A “rez” man himself, Tomson Highway has transformed the spiritual and cultural lessons of his youth into drama. He was born in Manitoba, Canada, on his father’s trap-line (“in a tent, like all his brothers and sisters”) on December 6, 1951 (some sources cite 1952). He spoke only Cree until the age of six, when he was sent to study at a Roman Catholic boarding school. He stayed there until he was 15, visiting his family only two months each summer. After finishing grade nine, Highway was sent to high school in Winnipeg, where he lived with various white foster parents. He graduated in 1970.
Since he was a “musical prodigy” in high school, Highway next spent two years at the University of Manitoba studying piano—a pursuit that he continued the following year, studying to be a concert pianist in London. After this year abroad, Highway returned to Canada, where he continued his studies at the University of Manitoba and the University of Western Ontario (from where he graduated with a Bachelors of Music Honors in 1975). However, he stayed an extra year to complete the English courses required for a Bachelors of Arts degree; during this time, he met and worked with James Reaney, one of Canada’s more respected playwrights and poets.
With his studies completed, Highway followed his humanitarian impulses and began seven years’ work with The Native Peoples’ Resource Center in London, Ontario, and The Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centers in Toronto. It was during this time that he traveled extensively through the reservations of Canada, meeting and observing scores of Native people in streets, bars, prisons, and friendship centers. Upon turning thirty, Highway began his career as a playwright, presenting his work to Native audiences on reservations and in urban community centers. With the 1986 premiere of The Rez Sisters, Highway’s artistic career began to blossom.
Speaking of his inspiration in creating The Rez Sisters’s female protagonists, Highway remarked to the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Ray Conlogue,“I am sensitive to women because of the matrilineal principle of our [Cree] culture, which has gone on for thousands of years. Women have such an ability to express themselves emotionally. And as a writer, you’ve got to express emotion.” This “expression of emotion” found in The Rez Sisters proved impressive: the play received numerous honors and played to sold-out audiences across Canada. After its success, Highway wrote a collection of monologues, Aria and his “flip-side” to The Rez Sisters, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), which features seven Indian men. Like its counterpart, Dry Lips won numerous awards, including four Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Highway served as the artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., Toronto’s only professional Native theater company, until 1992. He also cowrote The Sage, the Dancer, and the Fool, with Rene Highway and Bill Merasty in 1989.
The Rez Sisters opens on a late August day on the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve (or as its residents refer to it,“Wasy”) on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. Pelajia Patchnose is found nailing shingles to her roof, with the assistance of her sister, Philomena Moosetail. Pelajia’s first line, “Philomena. I want to go to Toronto,” reveals her desire to escape what she sees as her dull life in “plain, dusty, boring old Wasy.” “Everyone here’s crazy,” she complains. “No jobs. Nothing to do but drink and screw each other’s wives and husbands and forget about our Nanabush” —who is also known as “The Trickster,” a mythological spirit that observes (and sometimes enters into) the action of the play. After complaining more about the fact that there are no paved roads in Wasy, Philomena lifts her sister’s spirits with her wit (and by falling off die roof). Annie Cook, their half-sister, arrives and the three talk of their beloved hobby: bingo. Eager to run to the post office, where a parcel awaits her, Annie leaves and the two remaining sisters talk of how the bingo games in Wasy “are getting smaller and smaller all the time.”
The scene changes to Marie-Adele Starblanket’s house (down the hill from Pelajia’s), where she is throwing stones at Nanabush, disguised as a seagull. When Nanabush tells her “As-tum [Come],” she replies, “I can’t fly away. I have no wings. Yet.” Her conversation is interrupted when her sister-in-law, Veronique St. Pierre, enters with her mentally disabled adopted daughter, Zhaboonigan Peterson. Veronique and Marie-Adele discuss a used car purchased by an acquaintance before moving onto a more serious topic: Marie-Adele’s cancer. Veronique questions Marie-Adele about who will take care of her fourteen children after she “goes to the hospital”; Marie-Adele replies that her husband, Eugene, will carry this load. The topic shifts to the real motive of Veronique’s visit: to tell Marie-Adele that she heard a rumor that “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD” is coming to Toronto and to ask Marie-Adele if she wants to play. Annie arrives, learns of the upcoming bingo game, and all four of them walk together to the post office. On the way, Marie-Adele, Annie, and Veronique pause to tell the audience about their hopes for the upcoming game: Marie-Adele wants to buy an island where she can live with her family, Annie hopes to buy a complete country-music record library, and Veronique imagines herself cooking for everyone over a brand-new stove.
Arriving at the post office (which doubles as a general store), the women meet Emily Dictionary (Annie’s sister and half-sister of all the others). Described as “one tough lady,” Emily is an ex-biker who lived in California for years but has returned to Wasy. Instigated by only a few remarks, the women all begin a massive, free-for-all war of insults in which their suspicions and jealousies of each other are revealed to the audience. While the women bicker, Zhaboonigan wanders outside and talks to Nanabush, telling him of a time when she was sexually abused by two white boys. After the women stop fighting, Annie opens her parcel and finds a Patsy Cline record (a gift from her daughter) and the confirmation of the rumor regarding “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD,” which will take place in Toronto on September 8. Marie-Adele reads a letter from a hospital in Toronto, confirming her appointment for tests on September 10. The women decide to travel to Toronto, play bingo, take Marie-Adele to undergo her tests, and then return. But when they ask their local Band Council for a loan (which would enable them to rent a car), their request is refused.
In order to think of ways to raise enough money for their trip, the seven women hold a meeting in Pelajia’s basement. They decide to use Eugene’s van, but they also realize that they will need a total of $1,400 in order to pay for food and expenses. To raise this money, the women undertake a variety of odd jobs, presented to the audience in a long and humorous pantomime sequence. Finally, the money is raised and the women enter the van that, they hope, will take them to the $500,000 bingo jackpot.
En route to Toronto, the women have various conversations while others sleep; from these conversations, the audience learns about their respective pasts, hopes, and fears. Philomena, for example, explains that September 8 holds a special significance for her, since it is the birthday of her child that she had to give up as soon as it was born. Annie tells of her boyfriend Fritz, a Jewish country singer whom she hopes will marry her. Suddenly, a tire blows out and must be replaced. As the women change the tire, Marie-Adele wanders off and is attacked by Nanabush in the form of a nighthawk. Understanding that this is an omen of her death, Marie-Adele begs him for mercy: “Oh no! Me? Not yet. Give me time. Please.”
Once the tire is changed, they resume their trip and conversations. Marie-Adele tells of Eugene’s distress over her condition, which Pelajia explains with, “There’s only so much Eugene can understand . . . He’s only human.” Emily then reveals why she returned to Wasy: her lover, a member of her all-female biker gang, was killed on a San Francisco highway. The tension in the van is almost unbearable, until Emily acknowledges her gratefulness to the others. Relieved, she gives a “high-five” to Zhaboonigan and the stage transforms onto the site of the long-awaited bingo game.
The Bingo Master—who is also Nanabush, this time in a new disguise—greets the women and the audience, who actually play a warm-up game of bingo with the cast. However, once the actual big-money game begins, the women express their distress at their lack of fortune. Finally, they rush the grandstand and destroy the bingo machine while “out of this chaos emerges the calm, silent image of Marie-Adele waltzing romantically in the arms of the Bingo Master.” The Bingo Master suddenly changes into the nighthawk and carries Marie-Adele to the spirit world, signifying her death.
The action then returns to Wasy, where the six women sing the Ojibway funeral song over Marie-Page 202 | Top of ArticleAdele’s grave and then talk at the store. As a kind of renewal in the face of Marie-Adele’s death, Emily announces that she is pregnant with “Big Joey’s” (a local man’s) child. Veronique assumes the role of mother to Mare-Adele’s children and is seen cooking for them on the departed sister’s stove. The play’s final scene occurs at the same place it began: Pelajia’s roof, where she is still nailing shingles and joking with Philomena (who did win enough money to buy a new toilet). As Pelajia considers all of the changes for which she will work on the reserve, Nanabush dances to the beat of her hammer, unseen by her but appearing “merrily and triumphantly” to the audience.
The 36 year-old sister of Marie-Adele and half-sister of Pelajia and Philomena, Annie hopes to be a country singer and someday marry her boyfriend, Fritz, who is a Jewish country musician. She delights in gossiping about the activities of “Big Joey,” a local man who sleeps with a variety of women. Her daughter, Ellen, lives in a neighboring town with her boyfriend and writes her to tell her about the upcoming bingo game in Toronto.
Recently returned to the Wasy reservation, Emily is the 32 year-old sister of Annie (and half-sister of Pelajia and Philomena). Described as “one tough lady,” Emily’s coarse language and rough exterior are the results of an abusive ten-year marriage and the death, years later, of a female lover in San Francisco. Her rough exterior gradually gives way as her relationship with her traveling companions deepens. At the play’s end she reveals that she is pregnant and that Big Joey is the father.
Philomena is Pelajia’s 49 year-old sister and the voice of practicality among the seven women. She is lighthearted and often cracks jokes. She hopes to win enough money to buy a toilet that is “big and white and very wide.” Late in the play, she reveals that she once had to give up her child.
The traditional “Trickster” that features prominently in Cree and other Native American and North American culture, Nanabush is, according to Highway, “as pivotal and important a figure in the Native world as Christ is in the realm of Christian mythology.” Described as “essentially a comic, clownish sort of character,” Nanabush “teaches us about the nature and the meaning of existence on the planet Earth.” In the play, Nanabush appears disguised as a seagull, a nighthawk, and the Bingo Master. It is he who takes Marie-Adele to the spirit world when she dies at the bingo game. (“Nanabush” is the Ojibway name for the Trickster.)
The natural leader of “the rez sisters,” the 53-year-old Pelajia Patchnose dreams of a life away from the reservation the women refer to as Wasy. After her return from the bingo game, she decides (as Dennis W. Johnston describes in Canadian Literature), to use her leadership talents “to genuinely improve conditions on the reserve rather than just to complain about them.”
Zhaboonigan (zah-boon-i-gan) Peterson
Zhaboonigan is the 24 year-old mentally disabled adopted daughter of Veronique. Her parents died in a “horrible car crash” twenty-two years ago and Veronique has raised the girl since then. Only she and Marie-Adele can see Nanabush when he appears; in one instance, she tells the Trickster of a time that she was sexually abused by two white boys.
Veronique St. Pierre
The 45 year-old sister-in-law to the other women, Veronique complains about her alcoholic husband when not caring for Zhaboonigan Peterson, her adopted daughter, who has mental deficiencies. After Marie-Adele’s death, Veronique moves into the Starblanket home to care for the fourteen children and cook for them on Marie-Adele’s stove, an example (like her adopting Zhaboonigan) of her sweet nature and concern for others’ well-being.
Suffering silently from cancer, the 39 year-old Marie-Adele is the “mother figure” of the play. She lives with her husband, Eugene, and her fourteen children, for whom she hopes to win enough money to buy an island paradise where they can live “real nice and comfy.” She dies during the bingo Page 203 | Top of Articlegame in Toronto, where her spirit is symbolically transported to the spirit world.
Appearances and Reality
In The Rez Sisters, seven women travel from their Indian reserve to Toronto in order to participate in “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD.” Each woman has her own dreams of what winning the bingo jackpot will bring them. Annie hopes for enough money to “buy every single one of Patsy Cline’s records” and “go to all the taverns and night clubs in Toronto and listen to the live music.” Philomena hopes for a new toilet that is “big and wide and very white.” Marie-Adele wishes for “the most beautiful incredible goddamn island in the whole goddamn world.” Veronique desires “the biggest stove on the reserve.” Finally, Pelajia wants to build “a nice paved road” in front of her house, since their “old chief” has done nothing to help her realize this dream. Each woman’s dreams of wealth are linked to their desires to make life at Wasy more bearable—or, in the case of Marie-Adele, escape “the rez” entirely.
However, when the women arrive in Toronto, luck does not favor them. Despite the fact that Philomena plays with twenty-seven cards, she only wins $600 and the others return empty-handed after charging the bingo machine in their fury. (Marie-Adele does not return at all, dying during the bingo game.) Rather than complain about their hard luck, however, the “rez sisters” realize that these dreams cannot be realized by chance alone and that they need to focus on the changes that they can accomplish themselves. Speaking at the funeral of Marie-Adele, Pelajia states:
Well, sister, guess you finally hit the big jackpot. Best bingo game we’ve ever been to in our lives, huh? You know, life’s like that, I figure. When all is said and done. Kinda’ silly, innit, this business of living? But what choice do we have? When some fool of a being goes and puts us Indians plunk down in the middle of this old earth, dishes out this lot we got right now. But, I figure we gotta make the most of it while we’re here. You certainly did. And I sure as hell am giving it one good try. For you. For me. For all of us. Promise. Really.
The remaining women learn to work in order to improve their lives on “the rez”: Veronique takes
care of Marie-Adele’s children, Annie vows to practice her singing in order to become a star, and Pelajia accepts her position on her roof, hammering away for a better tomorrow. As Philomena tells Pelajia early in the play,“This place is too much in your blood. You can’t get rid of it. And it can’t get rid of you.” The literal and metaphorical journey depicted in The Rez Sisters reflects the women coming to understand the importance of these words. Perhaps the clearest sign that the sisters are moving in the right direction is the final appearance of Nanabush as Pelajia works on her roof; he “dances to the beat of the hammer, merrily and triumphantly.”
In her essay on The Rez Sisters, in Books in Canada, Carol Bolt remarks that, when seeing the play, audiences feel as if they “have been a part of an extraordinary, exuberant, life-affirming family.” This reaction is due to Highway’s creation of characters that reflect the value of friendship and a Page 204 | Top of Articleclose community. The fact that all of the women are either sisters, half-sisters, or sisters-in-law suggests that they have known each other for a long time; throughout the play they behave in a comfortable, familiar manner, joking and gossiping with each other. Even those women who profess dislike for each other (such as Annie and Veronique) still talk to each other, realizing the fact that severing any ties between them would be worse than being annoyed by each other’s idiosyncracies.
When a war of words erupts between the women, they throw the worst insults they can imagine at each other: Philomena calls Annie a “slime”; Emily calls Annie a “slippery little slut”; Veronique tells Annie she is a “sick pervert”; Pelajia calls Marie-Adele “a spoiled brat”; Marie-Adele tells Veronique that she is like “some kind of insect, sticking insect claws into everybody’s business”; and Annie mocks Pelajia for thinking that she is “Queen of the Indians.” However, despite these bitter retorts, a day later they are all working together, trying to raise enough money for their trip to Toronto. And during their drive, the women confess their secret fears and try to provide each other emotional comfort. Despite their gossip and tendency to quarrel, Highway’s characters share an unspoken realization that they need each other for stability and support.
Observing the action of the play is Nanabush, the “trickster” that plays a large role in many Native mythologies and cultures. “We have a mythology that is thousands and thousands of years old,” Highway explained to Hartmut Lutz in Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors. Highway described the trickster to the Globe and Mail’s Conlogue as “central to our system of spiritual belief. It’s a connection to this great energy, or God, which most people only perceive in moments of extreme crisis. Or when they are close to death, and can see into the spirit world.” In The Rez Sisters, only Marie-Adele and Zhaboonigan can recognize Nanabush in his various disguises, suggesting that the former is “close to death” and that the latter, despite her mental handicap, is more perceptive and open to the spirit world than the other women. On her way to Toronto, Marie-Adele is confronted by Nanabush, who warns her of her upcoming death; however, her ascension into the spirit world (in the arms of the Bingo Master) proves to be a breathtaking journey. By placing Nanabush onstage for most of the play, Highway suggests that the Trickster may be fading from modern Native’s memories but is in fact still very much a part of their everyday lives.
When Pelajia Patchnose, at the opening of the play, tells her sister that she wants to leave Wasy and “go to Toronto,” Philomena replies, “But you were born here,” as if this is reason enough for her to stay. As the play progresses, however, the audience learns that this is reason enough; one of the play’s chief issues is that home is where the heart is; how a group of people learn to respect their homeland and stand up to the challenges that make their lives’ difficult—rather than run off to a different place. “This place is too much inside your blood,” Philomena tells Pelajia. “You can’t get rid of it. And it can’t get rid of you.” The sisters frequently lapse into Cree, such as when Pelajia says,” Aw-ni-gi-naw-ee-dick [Oh, go on]” to Philomena or when Marie-Adele and Nanabush conduct an entire conversation in the same language.
Creating the play to occur in a specific place with its own language and identity reflects one of Highway’s chief artistic concerns: “I believe that a sense of place applies to everybody,” he said in an interview with Robert Enright in Border Crossings.“Where you come from, where your roots are—all that is extremely strong. I don’t think that anybody is able to get rid of it.” Unlike other plays with indeterminate settings, The Rez Sisters emphasizes Wasy to show that the setting is as important and as central to the play as the characters.
One of the chief appeals of The Rez Sisters is its array of colorful characters—the manner in which Highway presents his “sisters” is worth noting. Each of the women presents a different point of view about life on the rez. Pelajia, for example, thinks of a world elsewhere, where her “old man” would not have to “go the hundred miles to Espanola just to get a job.” Philomena is more down-to-earth and practical, as suggested by her desire for a nice new toilet (and her casual opening of the bathroom door to yell at the other women while she is sitting on an old one). Annie is the town gossip, prying into the affairs of others. Emily is a contrast to her friends because she is tougher and more Page 205 | Top of Articlecynical, at first appearance less concerned with the others’ welfare. Marie-Adele is tender and faces her impending death with great dignity. Veronique frets over her own childlessness but still cares for her adopted daughter, Zhaboonigan: a mentally disabled young woman whose honesty and joy springs forth to relieve the play’s most tense situations. Denis W. Johnston has written in Canadian Literature that the play’s complexity “lies not in its plot, but in a sophisticated pattern of character revelation and development.” By offering his audience such a wide variety of characters and attitudes, Highway is able to more fully explore life “on the rez” and the dreams of those who live there.
The foremost symbol used in the play (the one that opens and closes the story) is Palajia’s hammer, which is first seen when she is attaching shingles to her roof. Unhappy with her life at Wasy, the hammer symbolizes the toil and labor that Pelajia associates with the rez. She also uses the tool to threaten the other women, in which case it becomes a symbol of her aggression and her role as a leader to the women. At their meeting in Pelajia’s basement, Emily uses the hammer as a gavel, bringing order to their chaotic plans. Finally, as Johnston has remarked, Pelajia is using it at the end of the play, again on her roof, but with an important difference: now “her hammer has become a badge of purpose rather than just a physical tool.” Tracing the way that Pelajia uses her hammer is like tracing the ways in which her character changes; it serves as a symbol of her growth and accepting responsibility to transform and improve her corner of Wasy. With it, she will rebuild her life and the lives of her “rez sisters.”
Describing the initial reaction to The Rez Sisters, Highway remarked to Canadian Literature’s Johnston,“I’m sure some people went to [the play] expecting crying and moaning and plenty of misery, reflecting everything they’ve heard about or witnessed on reserves. They must have been surprised. All that humor and optimism, plus the positive values taught by Indian mythology.” These values are found in the attitudes of the women towards both Wasy and each other, and the best way to explore the cultural context of The Rez Sisters is to consider what its author has said about the role of spirituality and mythology in Cree and other Native cultures. 1986 saw the disaster at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant (which is estimated to cause anywhere from 6,500 to 45,000 future deaths by cancer caused by radiation); as if commenting on this tragedy, during his tenure as artistic director for the Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., Highway once stated, “At a time in our history, as a community of human beings, when the world is about to get literally destroyed, and all life forms have a very good chance of being completely obliterated—at a crucial time like this, Native people have a major statement to make about the profound change that has to come about in order for the disaster to be averted.” The statement to which Highway refers here is, of course, the play itself, which offers viewers a look at the spirituality of seven women and how this spirituality plays a role in their daily lives.
In several interviews, Highway has talked at length about the Trickster (who appears in The Rez Sisters as Nanabush), his role in Native culture and the effect of Christianity on Native beliefs. The Trickster “occupies a central role for us,” Highway told Conlogue in the Globe and Mail, “just as Christ does for [Christians]. But there are three important differences. Trickster has a sense of humor. He was never crucified. And he is neither male nor female.” (The Trickster’s sense of humor is found in The Rez Sisters, for example, when he transforms into the showy and bombastic Bingo Master.) “The way of Nanabush is the way of joy and laughter,” Highway said in Maclean’s. “Contrast that with Christianity—the way of pain and tears.” Highway sees one of his artistic goals as reacquainting Native people with their own mythologies, which, as he stated in Contemporary Challenges, were “almost destroyed or . . . obliterated by the onslaught of missionaries.” Describing the reaction to his second play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Highway told Enright in Border Crossings that he was “shocked to discover that main-stream audiences knew more about the size of Elizabeth Taylor’s breasts . . . than they did about their own systems of gods and goddesses.”
This is not to say that only Native audiences can learn from Highway’s depiction of Native spirituality; on the contrary, Highway has studied many mythologies from around the world and seeks to educate non-Native audiences about the way and teachings of Nanabush: “We’re not a highly intellectualized or highly technologized society,” he Page 206 | Top of Articletold Enright,“but we haven’t sacrificed our spiritual centre.”
While only two of his “rez sisters” can recognize Nanabush, this does not imply that the others have lost touch with their spiritual heritage: other characters speak of legendary figures, such as Windigo, a giant and Bingo Betty, a local ghost who haunts “the rez,” “hovering in the air above the bingo tables, playing bingo like its never been played before.” However, Highway is not implying that one culture is superior to another or more inherently “right”; rather, as he told Bemrose in Maclean’s, he feels that, “If we could combine the best of both cultures [Native and Western] we could create something really beautiful: a society that isn’ t structured to pollute or hoard bombs.” An interesting historical footnote to this comment is that, in 1986, a stalemate occurred in the nuclear disarmament talks between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, illustrating just how important “hoarding bombs” is to much of the world.
The Rez Sisters was first performed at the National Canadian Centre of Toronto on November 26, 1986. Critical response to the play was overwhelmingly positive. In a 1987 edition of Canadian Fiction Magazine, Daniel David Moses stated, “The majority of Native people, forced to inhabit ignored, economically disadvantaged areas called reserves, are not encouraged to regard their own lives as important. The accomplishment of The Rez Sisters is that it focuses on a variety of such undervalued lives and brings them up to size.” Thomas King, who published an excerpt from the play in his anthology All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, applauded Highway for his portrayal of the “rez” community and his ability to present a community as “the intricate webs of kinship that radiate from a native sense of family.”
Highway has also received acclaim for his positive and optimistic look at his characters, as well as the way that he presents the inner lives of these women to the audience. Carol Bolt, writing in Books in Canada called the play a “freewheeling, unforgettable journey in terrific company, the Rez sisters, all of them full of energy and honesty and dreams and life.” Writing in a 1990 edition of the Canadian Theatre Review, William Peel echoed Bolt by saying that Highway “has carved out a number of memorable portraits” and that his “achievement lies not only in the characters he has created, but in his masterful orchestration of the action through which these characters are revealed.” Indeed, his skill at characterization has won Highway his greatest acclaim: in Canadian Literature, Denis W. Johnston stateds, “A reading of some of the women’s individual stories—a character’s ‘through-line’ in theatrical terminology—will help to demonstrate how the strength of the play depends on cyclical character journeys rather than on the plot line.”
Praise has also been sung for Highway’s ability to emphasize the culture of his Native characters in a manner that is accessible to non-Native audiences. John Bemrose, writing in Maclean’s called Highway a playwright “who has learned to straddle two worlds with more grace than most people manage in one.” The Toronto Globe and Mail’s Conlogue praised Highway’s art on similar grounds, stating that “Highway embodies the customary contradictions of living in two worlds at once, native and white, but he embodies them with a special intensity because, simply put, he is outrageously talented.” Johnston remarked that although the play is one that is concerned with Native women, it is also a play with a universal message “about people and their dreams and their fears. That these people happen to be Native women, reflecting some problems of their particular place in contemporary society, asserts one feature only of die play’s appeal.”
When The Rez Sisters was brought to the New York Theater Workshop in New York City, it received a negative review in the influential New York Times. As critic David Richards wrote:“All of the play’s shortcomings, and none of [Highway’s] assets, are readily apparent . . . [Highway] plots scenes clumsily and states points baldly. When the dialogue is supposed to be ribald, it rarely rises above the level of adolescent bathroom humor.” However, Richards’s review mainly finds fault with the production rather than the play: “the drama, which has won numerous awards in Canada, has to be more surprising than this ramshackle staging would suggest.” He further stated that “Mr. Highways’ strongest gift, an ability to capture flamboyant personalities with their defenses down, remains largely unexploited” because “few of the [actresses] show any signs of theatrical sophistication. Raw gusto, more than anything else, distinguishes their collective endeavors.”
Despite such negativity, Highway’s ability to offer a glimpse of Native life without alienating non-Native audiences is one of the reasons why the play was nominated for—and awarded—the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play of the 1986-87 Canadian theater season. (The play was also chosen as a runner-up for the Floyd S. Chalmers Award for outstanding Canadian play of 1986). In addition to these prizes, The Rez Sisters was selected (in 1988) as one of only two productions to represent Canada at the Edinburgh Festival.
Moran is an educator with significant experience in the instruction of drama and literature. His essay on Highway’s play explores the themes of character, womanhood, and community that lead the sisters to appreciate one another and their reserve.
Terence, the popular playwright of ancient Rome, once wrote that “Fortune favors the bold.” While this may be true in some cases, none of the bold women in Highway’s The Rez Sisters seem particularly “favored” by Fortune or anything else for that matter. Pelajia, for example, opens the play by voicing her desire to leave: “I want to go to Toronto.” Veronique complains of her drunken husband. Emily was beaten by her husband for ten years, then left only to experience death in a new relationship. Annie lost her sweetheart to her own sister, Marie-Adele, who is now stricken with cancer. And Philomena, who seems the most jovial of the group, secretly wonders about the child she was forced to give up twenty-eight years before. All of the women hope that, by winning the bingo jackpot, they will be able to realize their dreams and improve their lives. What Highway suggests, however, is that real change cannot be found by the luck of a bingo machine (or more succinctly, money); rather, it must come from within the women themselves. As the women journey from Wasy to Toronto, they embark on a spiritual and emotional journey as well, returning with a fresh attitude, ready to affect real change.
The play begins with a depiction of the women’s lives at “plain, dusty, boring . . . old Wasy,” the “rez” where most of the action takes place. Pelajia is hammering shingles on her roof and complaining that Wasy needs paved roads “so that people will stop fighting and screwing around and Nanabush [the Trickster] will come back to us because he’ll have paved roads to dance on.” She continues to describe Wasy as a place where everyone is “crazy” because there are “no jobs” and “nothing to do but drink and screw each other’s wives and husbands and forget about our Nanabush.” Gossip is a favorite pastime on the rez, as seen when Annie enters and begins asking if anyone heard that “Gazelle Nataways plans to spend her bingo money to go to Toronto with Big Joey.” Their love of gossip seems to benefit them, however, when they learn that, in Toronto,“THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD” will be played for a $500,000 jackpot. Their reactions to this news displays their feelings of claustrophobia living in Wasy: Marie-Adele, for example, hopes to use her future winnings to buy an island “with pine trees and maple trees and big stones and little stonelets” where she can live “real nice and comfy” with her husband and her fourteen children. Similarly, Annie plans on discovering life off of the rez, in Toronto, where she can feel sophisticated and “drink beer quietly—not noisy and crazy like here.” As pointed out by David Richards of the New York Times, the women’s desperation to escape is evidenced by the repetitive phrase they each use, “When I win,” rather than, “If I win.” The Delaware playwright Daniel David Moses has written that these women (and many real women like them) were never “encouraged to regard their own lives as important,” and the opening scene of the play reveals this fact.
Highway’s emphasis on the characters of Native women suggests that he is exploring the ways in which their drive for success differs from that of their male counterparts. In the Globe and Mail, Highway said that he is “sensitive to women because of the matrilineal principle in [Cree] culture, which has gone on for thousands of years.” When examined from a distance, one can see that these women fit the roles of various “types”: Annie is the local busybody; Emily is the masculine biker; Philomena is the rez’s comic relief; Marie-Adele is the mother figure; Veronique is the bitter gossip; and Zhaboonigan, Veronique’s mentally disabled adopted daughter, is an outsider that is loved but cared for out of a sense of pity and duty. In offering these various character types, Highway creates a model of a community, where all sorts of women need to accept each other if their lives are ever to improve. There are no men in The Rez Sisters, although several are discussed by the women. The picture that the women’s dialogue paints of the rez
men suggests that they will be of little help in healing the rez: Veronique’s husband, Pierre St. Pierre, never provides his family with any money because he “drinks it up”; Big Joey is a womanizer who spends his days with other men’s wives; Wasy’s Band Leader has been making empty promises about community improvements (such as the new road Pelajia wants) for years, yet he never fulfills these promises; Henry Dadzinanare, Emily’s ex-husband, beat her “every second night for ten long ass-fuckin’ years.” Highway’s use of an all-female cast (except for Nanabush, who, due to his nature, can be played by either a male or female actor) serves to remind the audience that, although the play looks at universal human issues (such as death and love), he is offering a woman’s perspective on these issues—a perspective that the audience sees change as the play proceeds.
One of the ways that Highway illustrates the changes in the sisters’ attitudes is his depiction of the van ride to Toronto. At one point in this literal and figurative journey, Marie-Adele wanders off while the others fix a flat tire. She is greeted by Nanabush, this time in the guise of a nighthawk, who approaches and then attacks her as an omen of her impending death. Her frantic cries reveal her complete and total fear:
“What do you want? My children? Eugene? No! Oh no! Me? Not yet. Not yet. Give me time. Please. Don’t. Please don’t. Awus [go away]! Get away from me! Eugene! Awus! You fucking bird! Awus! Awus! Awus! Awus! Awus!”
Following this, she has “a total hysterical breakdown “; later in the van, she tells Pelajia,“een-pay-seek-see-yan [I’m scared to death].” To comfort her, Emily and Pelajia must face death almost as squarely as Marie-Adele herself, causing them to grow stronger as individuals and sisters. As Bolt remarked on this scene in Books in Canada, “We have seen the sisters raging at each other in a remarkable sequence, a riot of every conceivable insult,” but now they are “gentlest with each other” because “their journey has taken them simply and directly to the heart of the matter.” Their conversation with Marie-Adele causes Emily to consider the presence of death in her own life and understand how it has affected her: when her lover committed suicide in San Francisco, Emily “drove on. Straight into daylight. Never looked back.” Now, however, in the safe haven of the van, Emily Page 209 | Top of Articlecan be honest with herself and others and find the comfort she would never solicit but desperately needs.
The appearance of Nanabush in the previously described scene is a reminder to the audience that the women’s spirituality is another of Highway’s artistic concerns.“Nanabush” is the Ojibway name for the Trickster, a central figure in Native mythology. Throughout The Rez Sisters, Nanabush observes the action, seen only by Marie-Adele and Zhaboonigan (because their suffering has brought them closer to the spirit world). At first, Marie-Adele toys with Nanabush (in the guise of a seagull), who asks her to “fly away” with him. Her response, “I can’t fly away. I have no wings. Yet,” reveals her desire to escape but also her failure to fully understand the reason for Nanabush’s visit: he has come to guide her to her death, a fact that Marie-Adele is not yet ready to accept. When he appears to Zhaboonigan, she describes to him a time when she was sexually molested: “They ask me if I want ride in car. . . . Took me far away. Ever nice ride. Dizzy. They took all my clothes off me. Put something up inside me here.” Zhaboonigan, in a sense, can be seen as a symbolic character, representing the “rape” of Native pride and culture by white civilization and society; as if reflecting this idea, Nanabush “goes through agonizing contortions” while listening to her story. “The missionaries think they’ve killed off the Trickster,” Highway told Conlogue in the Globe and Mail, “but we don’t think so. To my mind, the Trickster has been passed under the table for two hundred years.” Part of Highway’s purpose in writing The Rez Sisters is to reawaken his audience’s awareness of Nanabush and bring him out from “under the table.”
The climax of the play, the actual bingo game, features a theatrical device that links the viewers even more closely with the characters, breaking down the wall between the audience and the actors: viewers play a “warm-up” bingo game (using cards supplied in their programs). The “theatrical daring” of this device has been praised by Moses in Canadian Fiction, who explained, “We literally play along, experiencing for ourselves the Rez Sisters’ passion.” The purpose of this device, however, is also to lure the audience into thinking like the sisters, to intensify their hope that Annie’s B-14 (the number she needs to complete her bingo card) will be called. Of course, it never is, and the sisters, exploding in frustration, storm the bingo machine as if to protest what they see as the unfair hand of fortune.
While this occurs, Marie-Adele is escorted away from the melee by the Bingo Master, who “waltzes romantically” with her, says, “Bingo” in her ear, and then transforms into the nighthawk: Nanabush in dark feathers. In his essay in Canadian Literature, Johnston remarked that Marie-Adele “comes to accept her own death in the same way that she accepted life, gently and with love.” Her death here is the central event of the play: before the numbers are called, Highway has the actresses arranged at a long bingo table, featuring Veronique’s “good luck” crucifix and lit “so that it looks like ‘The Last Supper.’;” This is a Christian image, to be sure, but one that many non-Native viewers are able to understand. Like Christ, Marie-Adele accepts her death with grace: “beautiful soft. . . darkwings . . . come and get me . . . wings here . . . take me.” The connection here is clear: as Christ died to create great changes in his followers’ minds and hearts, the death of Marie-Adele will do the same for her “disciples” at Wasy.
The final scenes of the play illustrate these effects in a number of ways. Veronique has moved into Marie-Adele’s house to care for her children; now she has a home with everything that Pierre St. Pierre’s drunkenness has withheld from her. Her previous “small-mindedness,” commented Johnston, “was a symptom not of having too little love to bestow, but rather of having too few people on whom to bestow it.” Annie has decided to practice and pursue her dream of a country-music career. Emily reveals to everyone that she is pregnant with Big Joey’s baby, as if fate has compensated for the loss of Marie-Adele; while Emily is unimaginable as a mother when she first enters the play, she is now a little softer and the implication here is that motherhood will allow her to express more openly the love and compassion that was reawakened during the sisters’ journey. The most notable transformation is Pelajia’s, who stands at Marie-Adele’s grave and realizes that complaining will not help anyone: “Kinda’ silly, innit, this business of living? But. What choice do we have?” To put her new perspective into action, Pelajia climbs atop her roof again and begins hammering at her shingles, but this time in a different state of mind: when asked by Philomena if she still wants to leave Wasy and go to Toronto, she replies, “Well . . . oh . . . sometimes. I’m not so sure I would get along with him if I were to live down there. I mean my son Tom.” Her acceptance of herself and the rez is growing stronger, and, as if to bless her conversion, Nanabush makes a final appearance on her Page 210 | Top of Articleroof, dancing “merrily and triumphantly” to the beat of her hammer. The “good fortune” that the Rez Sisters so desperately hoped for was, in fact, to lose “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD.” Losing at bingo (and, more importantly, losing Marie-Adele) has forced them to reevaluate their lives and take the responsibility of change upon themselves.
Source: Daniel Moran, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
In this positive review, Bolt recounts the action of The Rez Sisters.
Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters takes us from the Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island to the World’s Biggest Bingo in Toronto. It’s a free-wheeling, unforgettable journey in terrific company, the Rez sisters, all of them full of energy and honesty and dreams and life.
There is Pelajia Patchnose, who wants paved roads “so people will stop fighting and screwing around and Nanabush will come back to us because he’ll have paved roads to dance on.” There’s Annie Cook, who wants to go to Toronto to go to all the record stores, listen to all the live bands “and drink beer quietly, not noisy and crazy like here.” There’s Philomena Moosebait, who wants only a toilet “big and wide and very white.” And there’s Marie-Adele Starblanket who has cancer and who counts her 14 children on the posts of her white picket fence: “Simon, Andrew, Matthew, Janie, Nicky, Ricky, Ben, Mark, Ron, Don, John, Tom, Pete, and Rosemarie.” Marie-Adele longs for an island, “the most beautiful, incredible island in the whole goddamn world” for her 12 Starblanket boys and two Starblanket girls. In all, there are seven vital, remarkable women; and we also meet Nanabush, the trickster, disguised as a seagull, a disturbing spirit whom only Marie-Adele and the mentally disabled girl, Zhaboonigan Peterson, can see.
ZHABOONIGAN: Don’t fly away. Don’t go. I saw you before. There, there. It was a. Screwdriver. They put a screwdriver inside me. Here. Remember. Ever lots of blood. The two white boys. Left me in the bush. Alone. It was cold. . . . Ever nice white bird you . . .
Wasaychigan Hill is “plain, dusty, boring . . . old Wasy” where the “old man has to go the hundred miles to Espanola just to get a job” and the “boys . . . Gone to Toronto. Only place educated Indian boys can find decent jobs these days.” It is also a world full of poetry and spirits, “where on certain nights at the bingo . . . you can see Bingo Betty’s ghost, like a mist, hovering in the air over the bingo tables, playing bingo like it’s never been played before,” and where Nanabush courts Marie-Adele, dancing with her, begging her to fly away with him.
Marie-Adele tells him she has no wings “. . . Yet.” Besides, she is going to Toronto. For tests. And to play the biggest Bingo in the world with her five sisters.
It is when the women start out for Toronto, driving through the night, that the story becomes most haunting. While the others stop to change a tire blown out on the pitch-dark midnight highway, Marie-Adele meets the Night Hawk, the dark side of Nanabush. He reminds her that she’s dying and she’s terrified. She talks about her husband, Eugene:
I could be really mad, just raging man just wanna tear his eyes out with my nails when he walks in the door and my whole body goes “k-k-k-k” . . .
She talks about “the curve of his back, his breath on my neck, Adele, ki-sa-gee-ee-tin oo-ma, making love, always in Indian, only. When we still could. I can’t even have him inside me anymore. It’s still growing there. The cancer.”
“Pelajia,” she explains in Cree, “Een-pay-seek-see-yan. Pelajia, I’m scared to death.”
The six women continue together toward Toronto as Pelajia tries to comfort Marie-Adele.
You know, one time, I knew this couple where one of them was dying and the other one was angry at her for dying. And she was mad because he was gonna be there when she wasn’t and she had so much left to do. . .
We have seen the sisters raging at each other in a remarkable sequence, a riot of every conceivable insult. Now, when they’re gentlest with each other, when their journey has taken them simply and directly to the heart of the matter, the stage erupts again. Nanabush, in disguise as the Bingo Master, lets everyone in the audience play one warm-up game on the bingo cards included with each program.
Whoever wins this warm-up game, it isn’t the Rez sisters. Then the biggest bingo in the world is called, for the big pot they all want, (“A HALF MILLION smackeroos! If you play the game right”). They do everything they can to win. Philomena plays 27 cards. But when they realize it isn’t going to work, they storm the stage, complaining that the game is unfair. It’s a wonderful moment of theatre, Page 211 | Top of Articleas the Bingo Master changes to the Night Hawk and waltzes away with Marie-Adele.
The Rez sisters return to the reserve without Marie-Adele. Although the play’s final sequence seems empty without her, perhaps we are feeling the same loss the characters feel. After all, for two hours we have been part of an extraordinary, exuberant, life-affirming family.
Source: Carol Bolt, “No Wings Yet” in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, no. 2, March, 1989, p. 26.
In this article, Taylor gives an overview of the Native North American theatre from which Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters emerged.
Each summer, members of the Native Theatre School—the only one of its kind in Canada—develop a new production at their farm in Heathcote, Ont., and then take it on the road. Audiences on Indian reserves enjoy the plays, whether they deal with urban teenagers or movie stereotypes of Indians, says school director Cathy Cayuga: “They laugh aloud—they understand the absurdities.” But when her troupe performs for white audiences, they are often greeted with confusion. Added Cayuga: “People are terribly self-conscious—afraid to laugh.” Few Canadian plays successfully cross the boundary between native and white experience. Those that have, such as The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, have been written or coauthored by whites. Until Manitoba-born Cree playwright Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, which opened last week at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, the imaginative landscape claimed by Canada’s dedicated band of native theatre professionals has been unmapped territory for the rest of the country.
The Rez Sisters premiered at the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto a year ago, was runner-up for a Floyd S. Chalmers Award for outstanding Canadian Play in 1986 and won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play 1986/87. The play follows seven women who leave their reserve—or “rez” in native slang—on Manitoulin Island, Ont., to visit the world’s biggest bingo game in Toronto. Their banter, sometimes tough, sometimes wryly humorous, reflects the staccato rhythms of the playwright’s native Cree tongue. Highway attributes his drama’s success to its director, Larry Lewis, and to its actors. But the play, which will soon tour throughout Western Canada, also marks a turning point in native arts generally. Said Highway: “We’re entering
a second wave. Exactly 25 years ago Norval Morriseau’s first solo exhibition of paintings started a revolution by sharing the sacred stories beyond our communities. Now we are extending that, taking the oral traditions into theatre and three dimensions.”
Highway is artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Inc., one of the country’s 12 full-and part-time native performing groups. Some are based in cities, such as Vancouver’s six-year-old Spirit Song Native Indian Theatre Company, which runs ambitious training programs in theatre arts and mounts at least one new production a year. Others are reserve-based companies, such as the De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig Theatre on Manitoulin Island. The group’s name—“storytellers” in Ojibwa—reflects its focus on translating legends for the enjoyment of both reserve audiences and summer tourists.
Blake Debassige, president of De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig, distinguishes between the contemporary dramas produced by urban-companies and what his group does, which he calls “the romantic tradition—an extension of telling stories round the campfire.” Because those traditions were suppressed for centuries by white missionaries, some native activists say that the act of resurrecting legends is just as revolutionary as creating gritty new works. Once, native theatre took highly sophisticated forms: when Capt. James Cook arrived on Canada’s west coast in 1778, he found Nootka Indians using masks, props, trapdoors, lighting and smoke effects in their religious dramas. But between 1884 and 1951 performing many theatrical celebrations was punishable under the Criminal Code.
Changes to the code marked the beginning of a renaissance. So did reports of growth in indigenous peoples’ theatre in the Caribbean, Scandinavia and the South Pacific. In 1980 and again in 1982 delegates Page 212 | Top of Articlefrom those cultures converged in Ontario for the Indigenous Peoples’ Theatre Celebrations, creating an international support network that still persists. Native Theatre School director Cayuga has studied community theatre in Jamaica, and the school tour last year included two Carib Indians and a Lapp, or Sami, from Sweden.
Despite the success of The Rez Sisters, it is at the community level that native theatre will continue to flourish. That is because its primary goal is not to entertain a mass audience but to make connections with indigenous cultures torn apart by social change. Even The Rez Sisters performs a healing role. The play’s only male character is Nanabush—in Ojibwa legend, the trickster who is also something of a Christ figure, an intermediary between humanity and the world of the spirit. Said Highway: “When the white man came to this continent, Nanabush passed out under the table of The Silver Dollar [a bar in Toronto]. Our responsibility as native artists is to sober him up.”
Source: Drew Taylor, “Legends on the Stage” in Maclean’s, Vol. 100, no. 42, October 19, 1987, p. 69.
Bemrose, John. “Highway of Hope,” in Maclean’s, Vol. 102, no. 19, May 8, 1989, p. 62.
Although he mainly focuses on Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, Bemrose does offer some valuable quotations from Highway on the differences between the Cree language and English.
Conlogue, Ray. “Mixing Spirits, Bingo, and Genius,” in the Toronto Globe and Mail, November 21, 1987, p. C5.
Conlogue explains how The Rez Sisters reflects Highway’s concerns as a Native and as an artist, touching upon such topics as the Trickster, racism and the “matrilineal principle” in Native literature.
Enright, Robert. “Let Us Now Combine Mythologies: The Theatrical Art of Tomson Highway,” in Border Crossings, Vol. 1, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 22-27.
This is a long and thorough interview in which Enright and Highway discuss the playwright’s childhood, study of folklore, and the effects of Christianity on Native spiritual life.
Johnston, Denis W. “Lines and Circles: The ‘Rez’ Plays of Tomson Highway,” in Canadian Literature, Nos. 124-25, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 254-64.
This is a very perceptive and valuable essay in which Johnston discusses the stylistic and thematic similarities and differences between The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Each play is analyzed in great detail.
King, Thomas, editor. All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction, McClelland and Stewart, 1990.
An excellent anthology of Native fiction. King was the first to publish Highway’s work in a major anthology, and his introduction offers some perspectives on the playwright’s work.
Lutz, Hartmut. “An Interview with Tomson Highway,” in Contemporary Challenges: Conversations with Canadian Native Authors, Fifth House Publishers, 1991.
In this interview, Highway discusses the role of mythology in Native life.
Peel, William. Review of The Rez Sisters in Canadian Theatre Review, No. 65, Winter, 1990, pp. 62-64.
Peel explores the narrative structure of The Rez Sisters and explains how Highway creates his “memorable portraits” throughout the play.
Edgar, Kathleen, editor. “Tomson Highway” in Contemporary Authors, Vol. 151, Gale (Detroit), 1996, pp. 244-45.
Moses, Daniel David. Canadian Fiction, 1987.
Richards, David. “Bingo As the Way of Escape, at Dismal Odds” in the New York Times, January 5, 1994, pp. C15, C21.