Tales of an Urban Indian
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 27, 2009
One of the things I love best about going to the theatre is that it allows me to meet people I would probably never encounter otherwise; to hear their stories and at least begin to attain some empathy and understanding for their circumstances. Simon Douglas is just such a person. I am very glad to have met him in Darrell Dennis's semi-autobiographical one-man play, Tales of an Urban Indian.
Simon is a member of the Secwepemc Nation, an indigenous people residing in the interior of British Columbia. He tells us almost as soon as we meet him that his mother actually named him Robert; though she tried to set things straight with the government, she was thwarted in her effort:
AGENT WILLIAMS [of the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs]: Your Indian affair produced a kid, and now you're telling me you didn't name your kid Simon? It says right here in the official DIA registry book, sealed with the official stamp, of the official office of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, right next to the official registry number, that your papoose's official name is officially Simon Douglas. Now whom am I supposed to believe? Some Indian off the street, or the Prime Minister of the great Dominion of Canada?
Simon spends his formative years on the Coyote Lake Reserve with his father's family (though almost never with his father). When he turns seven, his mother moves him to Vancouver, British Columbia's metropolis, and Simon gets his first experience as an Urban Indian. After three years, his mother and he return to the Reserve, but the plagues of Indian life—which Simon recounts for us mostly matter-of-factly, without irony or sentiment though usually with great wit—take their toll. If you wonder why the cycle of alcoholism, drug addiction, and under- and unemployment persists among the Indians of Canada, this section of the play will explain it to you. After a particularly grievous incident, Simon's mother determines to take her son away from the hopelessness of life on the Reserve and they return to Vancouver. The Urban Indian takes root in his new environment...for better and for worse.
The stories that Simon tells us are harrowing and sad. Dennis is a canny playwright, though, and he leavens the misfortune that permeates his tale with humor and grand inventiveness. Not only does Dennis play the characters who figure in the narrative—everyone from Simon's wise old Indian grandma to his best friends on the Reserve (gluttonous Nick and sensitive Daniel) to a director on a film where adult Simon is typecast as, guess what, an Indian; he also takes us inside the hearts and minds of these people using all manner of meta-theatrical devices and pop cultural referents. Tales of an Urban Indian is thus blessedly cliche-free in its presentation, which I think helps make it even more accessible than it might be, so that an audience of people unfamiliar with the conditions of life for an Indian in a place like Coyote Lake (or a place like Vancouver) can achieve a level of empathy they probably didn't expect when they arrived at the theatre.
The production values are simple and effective, especially a basket full of stones that figures importantly in the story. Herbie Barnes's staging is economical; so is the ticket price ($10), as this production is part of the Public Theater's partnership with LAByrinth Theater Company, Public LAB.
At the very beginning of the play, there's a slide show (projected on the rear wall of the stage) featuring selections from centuries of the iconography that has helped white people define what "Indians" are: Tonto, Pocahontas, cartoon braves who say "how" and speak in monosyllables. Tales of an Urban Indian helps us understand how these symbols define the descendants of the people they describe. I've recognized for a long time how damaging racist and homophobic paraphernalia can be to the psyche and self-esteem of African Americans and young gays and lesbians. But I don't think the sheer rotten destructiveness of this kind of institutionalized propaganda has ever hit home so powerfully as in Darrell Dennis's uncompromising play.