(Prudence Upton/National Arts Centre)
A stage play tackling taboos and harsh realities faced by Indigenous women in Canada is being broadcast online by the National Arts Centre Feb. 14-21, to mark a national day of action for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Created by the Toronto-based theatre company Article 11, which is named for a section in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Deer Woman was written and produced in 2018 by Ntlaka'pamux playwright Tara Beagan.
The single-performer play was adapted to video in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It tells the story of a murdered Blackfoot woman through the eyes of her sister Lila, played by Blackfoot performer Cherish Violet Blood.
"It's kind of like [Beagan] has written a love letter," said Blood, a member of the Blood reserve (Kainai Nation) in southern Alberta.
"It's a story about the love between two sisters and the lengths that they'll go for each other .... It's a story of vengeance."
Drawing on historical and contemporary themes of violence against Indigenous women and sexual abuse, the story and performance are visceral, Blood said.
The main character, Lila, confronts the "darker side" of her identity as a Blackfoot woman and spells out the stories of strength and resilience within the statistics about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
"Lila is probably one of the most beautiful characters that I've ever had the honour of playing," said Blood.
"Throughout my whole career, I've always had to play [female, Indigenous] characters that have a tough story. Lila is actually really refreshing to me because of her resilience .... I just like the fact that she's not the victim."
The character's story resonates in a way that's personal to her as a First Nations woman and a sister, said Blood. She used her own life experiences and desire for justice to better inform her portrayal of Lila and, she said, to reveal difficult emotions and realities that Indigenous women encounter regularly.
"People just need to understand that it's not a past problem. It's ongoing, now," she said.
"I'm 40 right now. Being able to get to this age is actually amazing when you think about it in the greater context. The inspiration comes from the fact that this story is really hard and needs to be told."
'It's a scary place to go'
The burden of telling this difficult story was shared equally by the all-Indigenous production team, said Deer Woman writer Tara Beagan, who is Nlaka'pamux from Coldwater Indian Band, B.C.
"It's what little we can do," Beagan said.
"The least we can do is to get the piece out there and try to make it as accessible as we can. Yeah, it's a scary place to go. And it's also vitally important."
Beagan said she and Blood felt a responsibility to shed light on the "taboos" surrounding the issues of MMIWG no matter how difficult it was for them, as "it's not nearly as difficult as being one of the missing and murdered." Producing the play with other Indigenous artists who could relate to the story made it easier and more honest, she said.
"There are moments in rehearsal when we find the perfect moment and we'd be so stricken by how powerful it felt, that we'd kind of get the laughs, you know? Like when you're when you're a kid and you do something that's awesome, but you might not be allowed to do it," she said.
"There's a purity to the strength in the work that really seemed to vivify us."
Play written following Canada 150
Deer Woman premiered at the Kia Mau Festival in Wellington, New Zealand in 2018, and was performed in Australia and the United Kingdom. The filmed version was first broadcast in Calgary through Downstage Theatre last October.
Beagan said she started writing the play in 2018, following a year of national celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Canada's confederation. She observed the funding that "got thrown behind reconciliation" with Indigenous peoples through Indigenous art programs, she said, but was concerned that the effort would not be sustained. And she was right, she said.
"Doors were opened to us for the first time in many huge institutions and we were invited inside," she said.
"So once that year ended and the Canada 150 money dried up, we're back on the outside. I would say more harm than good was done throughout that year, so in many ways, Deer Woman is a reaction to that."
Beagan said the confronting and accusatory nature of the story could be a reason why the play hasn't been picked up by Canadian performance programs until now.
The free of charge, online performance will be available to watch on the National Arts Centre as of Sunday, until Feb. 21 at midnight ET.