Taking a long, hard look at why we treat each other the way we do feels like one of the most vital exercises we could collectively undertake today. In Canada, with the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, a conversation’s partly underway, however long overdue it feels, but intolerance within the country is a perpetual, deeply rooted issue, one that’s difficult to make headway on: when you try to take stock of changes that have happened, even as you note the positive progress, the distance yet to go still stretches out before you.
“If you do a period show, it’s interesting to go, OK, have things changed or not?” Tiffany Ayalik muses. “Or, in this way we’ve gone ahead, and in this way we’ve gone backwards.”
In Café Daughter, we’re given the opportunity to do just that: the Kenneth T Williams’ script—based on the life of still-serving Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck—takes us through the life of Yvette, born of both Chinese and Cree heritage. The play’s seeing its Edmonton debut through Workshop West & Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts, featuring Ayalik as its lone performer to guide us through its timeline, from Yvette’s nascent years as a prairie kid in the ’50s—whose mother’s has decided she’ll only identify as the Chinese, not Cree—through to adulthood, where she can draw the extent of her life’s experiences into focus to question why, even as a doctor and politician, she still finds herself facing acts of fear and ignorance both large and small, and how to reclaim her heritage within that world.
Some of the things Yvette finds herself facing are products of their era, Ayalik notes, but others prove more enduring, following the character into adulthood.
“When we first meet Yvette, she’s nine years old and it’s 1957 in rural Saskatchewan,” she says. “Just in this context—as any person of colour in rural Saskatchewan in 1957, or anywhere—it’s a different time. So on top of just being a kid, and how hard that can be sometimes, there’s this whole other layer of context to put on top of it: she experiences, even as a young child, these little micro-aggressions, peppered all through the play, that affect her [but] that she might not understand until she’s older.”
The script, then, seeks a family friendly, honest but uplifting way of discussing why, and where, those little instances come from, and how Yvette comes to understand and work around them.
“The nice thing about seeing her grow up is you can look back and go, ‘What? What was that?'” Ayalik notes. “That’s something of the time that we see: how does a child deal with racism, and how does a teenager deal with it, and then as an adult—how does this extremely intelligent doctor and senator deal with the everyday choices of: do you engage? Do you educate? Do you get mad? Her coping ability and reaction to her heart, and hardships, grow as she does.”
The subject matter wasn’t unfamiliar to Ayalik, though it wasn’t until the Yellowknife-raised actress came to Alberta—she studied at Red Deer College and the University of Alberta—that she really experienced much of that entrenched, problematic nature of some of what plagues Yvette.
“You’re educating people daily about what it actually means to be First Nations in this country,” she recalls. “I grew up in the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife. There’s no reserve—there’s a complete integration, 100 percent. That’s how I grew up: your boss is Dene, someone you work with is Inuit—you’ve got every country in the world represented in Yellowknife, which is very diverse. I never really experienced racism until I came down south.
“Not that Yellowknife is perfect, or some race utopia,” she continues. “But it’s just funny how you hear about these troubles, and when it actually affects you, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, what was that? What just happened?’ It really throws you back, because you think, ‘I thought we were better than this. I thought we’d moved on.’ But everyone has a different pace, and those little micro- aggressions are a generational thing, too.”
Ayalik lives in Yellowknife these days, though she’s often travelling for work—”It’s still home base, but I’m never there,” she laughs. She also plays in a band: Quantum Tangle, with songwriter Grey Gritt. A blend of storytelling—both personal and traditional—over intricate, skillful guitar work, the duo did a few buzzed-about shows around town this month, including at the inaugural Brown, Black, and Fierce Festival.
“We both come from blended backgrounds,” she says of herself and Gritt. “That’s something that’s very deeply affected us as performers and as people, that we’re constantly juggling this line between I’m half this, and I’m half that. So I’m sometimes too much for this, and other times not enough for this.”
Much like Yvette, in a way. And Ayalik notes that getting to hop around the spectrum of her life in Café Daughter offers up some ideas as to where, and why, intolerance seeps in.
“It’s nice to play as a child, because then it also reinforces that you’re taught this stuff,” she says. “You’re taught how to be that way, and you’re taught prejudice. No kid is born with it—you have to be taught that by a parent, or TV or culture. So there’s a lot of teacher influence in her life; her other relatives that each have a different competing influence. It’s nice to play as a child, because you can really lean in to the innocence of how that lands to a kid. And as we see the pattern go on, we could see how that could harden somebody, hearing this over and over.”
Until Sun, Dec 6 (7:30 pm; 2 pm weekend matinees)
Directed by Lisa C Ravensbergen
Backstage Theatre, $22.50 – $27