Tuesday, August 14, 2007

what do you call a sanctioned appropriation?

The Book of Jessica
by Linda Griffiths, with Maria Campbell

I know who did. The people, the mentality that drove my ancestors out of their land... the same bloody family compact runs this country now. It feels like an unbroken line sometimes. I know I'm from the underneath because of the way I feel, because of the anger I feel. I feel like I'm shaking my fist at someone on top of me, and I look... I'm from the Canadian middle classes, who the hell am I shaking my fist at? Myself? Who is it I'm so angry at, that I feel has oppressed me? All I know is I'm there with my fist in the air, feeling like most modern people, angry at shadows and ghosts. You want to make it into a clean story about conquerors and oppression, but it's not as clean or as clear a story as you seem to think. Not for me. You say that if we understood our history, everything would be stronger. But it doesn't feel like that to me. We have to see in what way we're being conquered right now.

I watch an aging pride when I go to gatherings in Toronto. There's a community of about a thousand people, artists who stayed here instead of leaving, and all of them have fought a battle to break through every kind of snotty colonialism in order to free themselves to be fascinated by their own place. They haven't left their people, you would say, and they've paid for it because their own people often despise them for it. That's my community.

The Book of Jessica is a journey into the process of creating a play as a collaborative effort. Originally envisioned as a continuation of the story of Halfbreed, the play Jessica was a collaboration of Theatre Passe Muraille's Paul Thompson, Métis activist and writer Maria Campbell, and playwright/actor Linda Griffiths. The Book of Jessica, however, walks the reader through the process, culminating in the play itself which was more fully a product of Linda Griffith with input from Maria Campbell. This is a Canadian play mired in conflict, and Linda Griffith's telling of the troubles between herself, Campbell and Thompson is at times disarmingly honest -- none of the creators spoke to one another from many years after the original production of the play, and Campbell and Griffith quarrelled over aspects of the future and publication of the play.

In the preamble to the play, many interesting issues are raised. The most obvious issue that preoccupies the women in their discussions about the play is the issue of appropriation of voice. Linda Griffiths, who played the Maria Campbell-based character of Jessica in the original run, and indeed created the character herself, has constant feelings of discomfort about playing a Métis woman, worrying constantly about her ability to portray a culture to which she doubts her ability to access. In rehearsals, we learn, she and Campbell regularly hit walls -- Griffiths incapable of accessing the necessary experience, and Campbell angry about what Griffiths represents to her personally as a white woman. But Campbell's most important assertion is what resonates with Griffiths and carries through the play -- the character of Jessica is as much a product of white society as Native, which means that Griffiths is not appropriating a voice so much as she is channeling an alternate part of herself. Furthermore, Campbell reminds Griffith, the whites who came and oppressed the Aboriginal and Métis populations did so because they were evacuated from their own homelands by similar processes. Griffiths needed to channel her inner oppresses person in order to find the reality of Jessica. Interesting, Griffiths points out that the only audiences who had problems with a white woman portraying Jessica were the white liberal theatre critics. Perhaps the anger over appropriation is sometimes merely a cover for our discomfort over how similar we really are?

The play itself carried forward more of the themes of Halfbreed, though with more magic realism. Again, for me, the most interesting idea is that of the broken male members of the community. Sam, the Aboriginal male figure in the play, feels that he has been castrated by the white oppressors, and even though he is a sympathetic character and we are encouraged to like him (played by the lovable Graeme Greene), he too resorts to violence against women when he finally feels that he has lost his power in the home. This idea is one I would love to see studied more in masculinity theory, which unfortunately tends to be quite a white-centric movement.

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