The Rez Sisters
is a two act play by Cree
The Cree are one of the largest groups of First Nations / Native Americans in North America, with 200,000 members living in Canada. In Canada, the major proportion of Cree live north and west of Lake Superior, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, although...
Canadian writer Tomson Highway
Tomson Highway, CM is a celebrated Canadian and Cree playwright, novelist, and children's author. He is the author of the plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, both of which won him the Dora Mavor Moore Award and the Floyd S...
, first performed on November 26, 1986 by Act IV Theatre Company and Native Earth Performing Arts
Native Earth Performing Arts is a Canadian theatre company located in Toronto. Founded in 1982, it is the oldest professional Aboriginal performing arts company in Canada...
The Rez Sisters
is partially inspired by Michel Tremblay
Michel Tremblay, CQ is a Canadian novelist and playwright.Tremblay grew up in the Plateau Mont-Royal, a French-speaking neighbourhood of Montreal, at the time of his birth a neighbourhood with a working-class character and joual dialect, something that would heavily influence his work...
's play Les Belles-soeurs
Les Belles-soeurs is a two-act play written by Michel Tremblay in 1965. It was Tremblay's first professionally produced work and remains his most popular and most translated work. The play has had a profound effect on Quebec language, culture and theatre. Les Belles-soeurs premiered at Théâtre...
as it focuses on the hopes and dreams of a group of seven woman on the Wasaychigan Hill Indian reserve
In Canada, an Indian reserve is specified by the Indian Act as a "tract of land, the legal title to which is vested in Her Majesty, that has been set apart by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of a band." The Act also specifies that land reserved for the use and benefit of a band which is not...
. While Highway's treatment of his women characters is sympathetic and perhaps gentler than Tremblay's, their portrayal can only be described as gritty and grim realism.
The Rez Sisters
is the first of an unfinished cycle of seven plays the playwright refers to as his Rez Septology, which also includes 1989's 'flip side' play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing
Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a play by Tomson Highway, which premiered in 1989 at Theatre Passe-Muraille in Toronto.Set in the fictional Wasaychigan Hill reserve in Northern Ontario, Dry Lips is a companion piece to Highway's earlier play The Rez Sisters...
, originally entitled The Rez Brothers
The Rez Sisters
features an ensemble cast of seven women dreaming of winning, and working toward raising enough money to attend, "The Biggest Bingo in the World," and one male actor/dancer in the role of Nanabush (originally played by the playwright's brother René Highway
René Highway was a Canadian dancer and actor of Cree descent from Brochet, Manitoba. He was the brother of playwright Tomson Highway, with whom he frequently collaborated during their time at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, and the partner of actor and singer Micah Barnes.Highway studied...
). The play melds the sometimes dark realities of life on an Indian reserve with humour and elements of Aboriginal spirituality. It features excerpts of dialogue in the Cree and Ojibway languages.
| Main Characters
|| What happens to characters at the end
| Pelajia Patchnose
|| Her sons are in Toronto
Toronto is the provincial capital of Ontario and the largest city in Canada. It is located in Southern Ontario on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. A relatively modern city, Toronto's history dates back to the late-18th century, when its land was first purchased by the British monarchy from...
, while her husband is in Espanola
Espanola is a town in Northern Ontario, Canada, and is the seat of Sudbury District. It is situated on the Spanish River, approximately 70 kilometres west of downtown Sudbury, and just south of the junction of Highway 6 and Highway 17.- History :The name "Espanola" has been attributed to a story...
. Her mother is dead. Sister of Philomena. Works as a contractor.
| She is trapped at the reserve which she has come to hate.
|| She is back where she started (on the roof) still trapped in the reserve. Considers becoming the chief.
| Philomena Moosetail
|| She had an affair with her boss (garment district) in Toronto and conceived a child. But she gave the child away. Her mother is dead. Sister of Pelajia.
|| Her lover (her boss) got her pregnant but then left with his wife. She knows nothing of the child she bore, not even its gender.
|| She wins $600 from the bingo. Buys her new shiny, porcelain toilet bowl. But no major change occurs in life, as she is also back where she started, on the roof.
| Marie-Adele Starblanket
|| Took Eugene from Annie, who drinks a lot. Has fourteen kids with him. Half-sister of above.
|| She has a growing cancer.
|| Her cancer kills her as the rest of the women lose the bingo game.
| Annie Cook
|| Has a daughter, Ellen who lives with Raymond in Sudbury. Sister of Marie-Adele.
|| She lost her love to her own sister Marie
|| She gets a job as a back-up singer for Fritz at Little Current. She also comes closer to achieving her love, Fritz.
| Emily Dictionary
|| She works at a store. Mistreated by her husband forcing her to abandon him and her children. Former member of the Rez Sisters’ motorbike gang, she left when her lover killed herself. Sister of Annie.
|| She was severely mistreated by her husband, who tried to kill her once. She was part of the Rez Sisters’ gang in San Francisco.
|| Comes back to her store, but is pregnant with Big Joey's baby.
| Veronique St. Pierre
|| Adopted Zhaboonigan with Pierre. Sister-in-law of the above.
|| She is disliked by almost everybody. Husband Pierre drinks all the money away.
|| She gets her new stove and is delighted to be cooking for Eugene and the fourteen Starblanket children
| Zhaboonigan Peterson
|| She is mentally challenged. Her parents died in a car crash. Adopted daughter of Veronique St. Pierre.
|| She is mentally challenged and was sexually abused by two white men.
|| Originally afraid of Emily Dictionary, she comes to trust her and in her final scene in the play is learning to help Emily at the store.
The opening scene begins with Pelajia Patchnose nailing shingles on her roof on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. She is joined by her sister, Philomena, with whom she discusses her longing to leave the reserve, to which Philomena receives skeptically: "But you were born here. All your poop's on this reserve". They are joined by their half sister, Annie Cook, who they treat disdainfully, and who shares the news that she is expecting a package before leaving to pick it up.
Meanwhile, Marie-Adele is playing with Zhaboonigan, while Nanabush, in the form of a seagull, watches on. This is where we first learn of Marie-Adele's (cervical?) cancer, and Veronique's insecurity about having no blood children of her own. The various tensions between the seven sisters, such as shared lovers and stolen husbands, is slowly exposed. This is also when we first hear rumors about THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD, a possibility which all the women are ecstatic about. Soon Annie arrives and the women march to Emily Dictionary's store to discover the details.
Once the women are gathered at the store long suffering tempers flare and the scene dissolves into the sisters tussling and exchanging verbal attacks, during which Zhabooginan wanders to the side stage and re-accounts her brutal rape by two white boys with a screwdriver to her audience, Nanabush, who is experiencing "agonizing contortions" during the retelling.
However, as soon as news of THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD is confirmed, the women promptly stop their squabbling and cooperatively plan how to fund the trip to Toronto in order to attend. A mad flurry of activities ensue as the women plan the trip and raise money in various ways. Once they have consolidated their efforts and funds, they set out on the drive in a borrowed van.
They encounter several diversions, a flat tire, Marie-Adele collapsing (and having another encounter with Nanabush, this time as a raven), but the most notable part of the scene is the emotional stories the women exchange: Emily re-accounts witnessing her lesbian lover die in a motorcycle accident, Marie-Adele expresses her fear of dying, etc.
Finally they arrive at THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD, where Nanabush plays the bingo master and the audience plays along. At the end of this climatic scene, Marie-Adele dies just as the other women are losing. The play jumps back to Wasaychigan Hill, and Philomena has won $600 and got a new toilet, but otherwise things remain largely unchanged.
Themes and motifs
Nanabush, who is described by Tomson, as a "pivotal and important a figure in the Native world as Christ is in the realm of Christian mythology", is a central and symbolic character in the play. Although he is specifically played by a male actor in the Rez Sisters, Tomson switches the gender in Dry Lips, noting that Nanabush is traditionally dual-gendered. The character is present in both scenes of joy (Marie-Adele and Zhabooginan innocently playing), and of anguish and despair (Zhabooginan describing her rape, the women fighting, Marie-Adele collapsing, dying). These appearances possibly speak to the understanding of Nanabush as an apathetic deity, reinforcing the ending of the play: circular (Pelajia is once more on her roof), and without resolution. It is worth noting that Nanabush, who ‘appears’ in bird form, is only seen as "the spirit inside" by Marie-Adele (who is close to death), and Zhabooginan (who has a mental handicap), perhaps speaking to the relegation of this deity to the margin in the Aboriginal community.
In the play, the details of Zhaboonigan's sexual assault - including her being abducted and attacked with a screwdriver - closely parallel the details of the 1971 murder of Helen Betty Osborne
Helen Betty Osborne, or Betty Osborne , was a Cree Aboriginal woman from Norway House reserve who was kidnapped and murdered while walking down Third Street in The Pas, Manitoba on the evening of November 13, 1971.- Life :...
of Norway House, Manitoba
- Treaty and York Boat Days :Held annually each summer, the York Boat events serve as the main attraction.-External links:* * * *...
. Despite overwhelming physical evidence — blood, hair and clothing fragments were found in one of the suspects' cars — it was not until 1987, a year after The Rez Sisters opened, that two out of the three suspects in Osbourne's murder were charged. Highway's deeply sympathetic character, Zhaboonigan, can be seen as a statement against the injustice inflicted upon Osborne.
The rape of an Aboriginal woman with a symbol of "western" domination is a reoccurring image in Highway's work, paralleled in Dry Lips with a woman raped by a crucifix. One reading is the crude image of the screwdriver as a western ideological "tool" used to "fix" the "broken" condition (Zhaboonigan is mentally handicapped) of the Indian.
Emily Dictionary - Queer characters in the 1980s
At the time that this play was written, being openly gay was an extremely risky endeavour. Though Highway subtly veils it, it can be understood that Emily Dictionary's love of the biker-women, and her "butch" leanings and subtle aversion to the male characters of the play point to her implicit lesbianism.
The over-the-top and sometimes brash character portrayal (sisters tickling one another on the breasts) can be attributed to camp
Camp is an aesthetic sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its taste and ironic value. The concept is closely related to kitsch, and things with camp appeal may also be described as being "cheesy"...
theatrical style, intentionally meant to shock and evoke strong audience reaction.
Although the play is considered a classic of Canadian theatre, Highway himself has noted that it is rarely staged by theatre companies. According to Highway, theatres frequently face or perceive difficulty in finding a suitable cast of First Nations actors, but are reluctant to take the risk of casting non-aboriginal performers due to their sensitivity around accusations of cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of...
, with the result that the play is often simply passed over instead.
In 2011, director Ken Gass mounted a production of The Rez Sisters
at Toronto's Factory Theatre
Factory Theatre is a theatre in Toronto, Ontario, founded as Factory Theatre Lab in 1970 by Ken Gass and Frank Trotz.Factory was the first theatre to announce that it would exclusively produce Canadian plays, but it soon became a widely emulated policy by other theatre companies...
. As part of an ongoing research project into the effects of colour-blind casting
Colour-blind casting, non-traditional casting or integrated casting is the practice of casting a role without considering the actor's ethnicity. It derives its name from the medical condition of colour blindness...
on theatre, he staged two readings of the play — one with an exclusively First Nations cast and one with a colour-blind cast of actors from a variety of racial backgrounds — before mounting a full colour-blind stage production.
- Won 1986-87 Dora Mavor Moore Award
The Dora Mavor Moore Award is an award presented annually by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts which honours theatre, dance, and opera productions in Toronto. Named after Dora Mavor Moore, who helped establish Canadian professional theatre, the award was established on December 13, 1978...
for best new play.
- Runner-up for the Floyd Chalmers Award for the outstanding Canadian play of 1986
- Nominated for the Governor General's Award
The Governor General's Awards are a collection of awards presented by the Governor General of Canada, marking distinction in a number of academic, artistic and social fields. The first was conceived in 1937 by Lord Tweedsmuir, a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction who created the Governor...