‘This is when I knew I wanted to be a doctor,” Yvette tells us early on in Café Daughter. At that point, it seems more like a child’s wide-eyed desire to help her immediate situation—her mother’s sick, seemingly in perpetuity—than anything deeper, but her declaration proves more than a passing fancy in Kenneth T Williams’ script, skillfully presented by Workshop West and Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts. Here we get to trace the arc of a dream, from its early stages into something deeper and more tangible, even as it struggles to find support in a culture that would rather see minorities fit into the confines of stereotype.
Based on the life of Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, we follow Yvette’s progress from a small-town childhood into high school in Saskatoon. Born to a Chinese father who runs a local café and a Cree mother—who expressly forbids her to identify as such—Yvette juggles her mixed heritage by hiding the latter part of it. Identity, then, is as much a secret as a defining feature for Yvette: and as she grows older, that distance grants her immense insight into how indigenous people were (and still often are) treated by the world at large. Not that identifying as Chinese means she gets a pass from small-town racism—far, far from it—but she is while she’s affected by so many micro-aggressions, sometimes she’s simply a sideline witness to them.
Some of those experiences, especially the early ones, occur when Yvette still doesn’t quite understand the scope of them get played well for comedy, like her sixth-grade teacher balking at the idea of a student of colour in her class (Despite her straight-A grades), or being cast as “the Indian” in a school play. Later they turn more serious, but come as realizations of what a maturing Yvette has to overcome and reclaim to achieve what she wants. in Café Daughter, you get to witness the dawning of a fiercely independent spirit, and it’s incredibly satisfying to watch it happen.
It all plays out on T Erin Gruber’s gorgeously sculptural set design, which gives the sense of multiple memories converging at once: a mix of painted set, textured framework and projection that moves between classrooms, shifts between starry nights and prairie skies, as well as offering focused moments of quiet intimacy. And Tiffany Ayalik’s performance is deft: she flows through scenes, both as Yvette and every other character (it’s all sharply directed by Lisa C Ravensbergen, too), playing out both sides of conversations with nuanced brio. Her Yvette proves an immensely likeable kid who you root for, even as the world around her—rural Saskatchewan in the late ’50s—tries to write her off.
And on that note: how rare is it to have an aboriginal youth given voice in mainstage theatre? Doubly one that isn’t solely linked to trauma—it’s around her, certainly, but Café Daugther is never not Yvette’s story, whether she’s brushing up against personal loss, or facing larger struggles for a sense of place and person. That alone feels like a triumph, but the rest of the production does, too.