Sheldon Elter takes Edmonton by heartbreak and humour with his revolutionary must-see Métis Mutt
“Please understand that I am Métis. Which means that I’m native AND white. So half of me wants to ‘assimilate you into my culture,’ (in bad British accent) and the other half is ‘just too lazy to do it’ (thick Native accent).”
So goes the first flashback scene in Sheldon Elter’s autobiographical performance piece, Métis Mutt.
The current play, directed by Edmonton’s talented Ron Jenkins, has a long history. And it’s history is intricately interwoven with Elter’s own history. What originally began as a seven-minute theatre class monologue at Grant MacEwan College in 2001, evolved into a full-length Nextfest show with the help of Elter’s mentor Kenneth Brown, a sold-out Fringe work, an Ontario-toured phenomenon with Magnetic North Theatre Festival, a New Zealand and Canada tour wonder, and finally a Roxy Theatre hit in 2003. But that’s not even the end of it. Elter also reworked the original script to perform it at rural high schools across Alberta, adding in a self-empowerment workshop for a time.
Last year, Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts reached out to Elter to ask if he’d be willing to bring it to Toronto for the first time. But given the significant amount of time that had passed since he last performed Métis Mutt, he knew the script needed some serious adjustments. Elter had grown and matured in ways the piece didn’t portray, and he had mixed feelings about the general gist of the thing.
From that long-winded backstory is where we find ourselves today, with the incredible opportunity to see this masterpiece snapshot in time. With the help of lighting designer Tessa Stamp, sound designer Aaron Macri, and projection designer Erin Gruber, Elter was able to swing something larger than himself, larger than its own past, and larger than any of us; Métis Mutt is a gem that should be seen by the masses.
It’s the first time I’ve ever been so intuned with the audience around me and, simultaneously, so fully absorbed into the play in front. The major feat of the performance is that this is a one-man show, and yet, it felt like almost a dozen actors had just left the stage when the final lights went down.
The humour Elter uses to begin the story of his own chrysalis starts things abruptly, as he runs through a smattering of racially-charged and crudely-stereotyped bad jokes that are at the expense of Indigenous heritage.
“What do you call an Indian on a bike?”
“What do you call 40 squaws in a room?”
“Why are there only two pallbearers at an Indian’s funeral?”
Some laugh, some don’t, some are very obviously uncomfortable with the situation, watching fellow audience members out of the corner of their eye to make their decision. Then, he brings out a laughing track to make things trickier as he increases his speed and intensity—a few more (slightly nervous) laughs bubble out of the audience. Then, the lights go black.
Suddenly, he’s a younger, much younger, version of himself, writing his dad a note about their recent visit and the Spam and mustard sandwiches they ate together.
The flashbacks go in chronological order, and so does your understanding of Elter’s self-perception and internalized racism. Oscillating between owning his “Indian-ness” and feeling offended by an outdated term, he struggled with what to root his identity in as the world changed.
Stamp’s simple, cave-like set mirrors this progress. Strung up behind is the centre of a much-larger-than-can-be-fully-seen dreamcatcher behind a sacred circle of riverbed stones, which holds all of the play’s dynamic scenes of pain, joy, and humour. Beyond this, there’s a chair, a guitar, and a mic—that’s it. Elter’s talent shines in each scene as he takes on voices and mannerisms of his younger self, his girlfriend’s mother, his abusive alcoholic father, his own courageous mother, a life-changing medicine man, his good friend Marc Savard (the hypnotist), I can go on.
Through the harsh and uncensored realities of one man’s story, a greater story comes through, illuminating the loss of culture, the effects of intergenerational trauma, and the power of language. It’s not just one man’s story—it’s a story of us all, and you should not miss it.
Until Mar. 4 (8 pm)
The Roxy on Gateway