Review: Deer Woman

by Lynn on February 19, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streamed on line until Feb. 21, 2021.

Playwright and director, Tara Beagan

Director and designer, Andy Moro

Collaborating sound designer, Luca Caruso-Moro

Original music and composition, performed by Lacey Hill

Cast: Cherish Violet Blood

The story is devastating. It’s a harrowing play that references the thousands of missing Indigenous women and girls in this country. The production is superb.

Background. Deer Woman was written in 2017 and has played across the country, at the Edinburgh festival and as far away as Australia. Because of COVID 19 the creators of Deer Woman are presenting this as a digital presentation.

The play is about a Lila, a proud Blackfoot woman. She is a determined. She has parked her truck in the woods. She takes a long-handled axe and a shovel out of her truck and tosses them on the ground.  She carefully sets up her tripod at the right height and then places her cellphone on it. She sits on a trunk and positions herself in front of the cellphone, ready to record her message.

She wears a sweatshirt with the word “ARMY” in large letters printed across the front of it.

She says: “I’m taping this ‘cause I was thinking I don’t want anyone to decide that I’m crazy and say what I did didn’t count. That wouldn’t be fair…I’m gonna tell you lots of stuff. Some of you don’t deserve knowing.” In spite of that line I get the sense that Lila is recording this for a friend, a person she cares about and trusts, a person who should be told the truth about what happened. And of course, Lila is recording this for us—the audience, the people who will bear witness.

Playwright Tara Beagan has Lila give an autobiography of her life as background for context. As a young girl Lila learned she was going to have a little sister and she was overjoyed at that news.

Her parents were together then—there was some reference to the mother giving birth to a hamster. When Lila’s sister was born she was named Pamela but was always called Hammy.Over the course of the story, Lila displays a dark sense of humour but rarely any joy except for and with her sister. We soon get the sense of that family.Lila’s mother had a sister who disappeared, and was assumed murdered but there was no investigation etc. Lila’s father soon was not on the scene and her mother showed little interest in the children. They lived in a trailer. Her mother drank with three men on Monday nights and one of them quietly sexually abused Lila regularly on those Mondays.

Lila noticed that her mother threw a door stop into the trailer and Lila couldn’t figure out why until she realized she should use the door stopper to her and her sister’s bedroom, then the pedophile couldn’t get in. That was all the mother seemed to do for her children. Moments like that make you suck air.

There is a point where the girls have to decide with which parent they want to live. The mother is going to go off with the pedophile—do the girls want to live with the mother or the father—who is back in the picture. They pick the father. As a parent the father seems terrific. He is gruff but attentive. He takes them hunting and teaches them how to hunt deer and be respectful of them as they are shot. They learn never to shoot a doe because they are female and carry on the line. Always kill the male. They have endless questions for him. He answers every one without impatience.  Lila learns how to do a clean kill and how to dress the dead animal properly. Lisa is so attuned to the deer that she feels their spirit enters her being and she is then referred to as “the deer woman.”

When Lila is of age she joins the army and goes overseas to Kandahar. While she is there she learns that Hammy has disappeared and is presumed murdered. Lila feels guilty about not being there to protect her sister. When Lila returns home she uses everything she learned in the training by the government, and tracking of an animal she learned from her father, to find her sister’s killer.

There are times watching Deer Woman that it almost seems like a checklist of misery wrapped up in one story. But this is how Tara Beagan makes a universal story about missing Indigenous women and girls; by making the story specific to this family. From what we have read and heard in the media about these terrible stories, this is true, fact, it’s recurring and there seems to be little in the way of tracking down the murderers.  

Lila does track down her sister’s murderer herself and offers a reason at the beginning of her story—she wants to make sure the truth is told and she will tell it.

There is a recuring theme in these Indigenous stories and in the stories of Black History month….these marginalized people want to be seen, heard and allowed their space.

The filmed production is a mix of brutal honesty, harrowing events and self-deprecating humour. Lila speaks of Auntie Gary and how he was always kind to Lila and her sister. We wait patiently for an explanation about anyone named Auntie Gary with a pronoun ‘he’. Auntie Gary was a gay man, a hair dresser who was both an uncle and an aunt to Lila and her sister. He offered unconditional love and moral support in spite of having to endure cruel behaviour from those around him because he was gay.

This is a one person show and Cherish Violet Blood plays the various parts, especially Lila, with style, efficiency and without any sentiment. She beautifully realizes Lila’s a dark sense of humour. I will note that this production is for those 16-years-of-age and over because there are scenes of violence.

Tara Beagan is a compelling playwright. The story is tough and she does not let you look away. Unfortunately, it’s a story that has to be retold so that something is done to find those missing Indigenous women and girls, or at least to learn what happened to them and by whom.

Presented by the National Arts Centre, Indigenous Theatre and Article 11.

Plays until Feb. 21, 2021.

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