Review: CAFE DAUGHTER at the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont.

by Lynn on August 29, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live, in-person on the Harvest Stage, part of the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Until Sept. 5, 2021.

Written by Kenneth T. Williams

Directed by Keith Barker

Sound and original music by Heidi Chan

Costumes by Jeff Chief

Cast: April Leung plays the role of Yvette until Aug. 28.

P.J. Prudat plays the role of Yvette from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.

Background. Inspired by a true story about a Chinese-Cree girl growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1950s and 60s, Kenneth T. Williams’ remarkable play premiered in 2011 in Dawson City to instant acclaim. This tour-de-force tells the story of Charlie Wong who emigrates from China to rural Saskatchewan, and opens a restaurant. But provincial law at the time prevents Charlie from hiring white women to work for him. Katherine, a young Cree woman from a nearby reserve, takes a job at the café. In time, the two fall in love, marry, and have a daughter—Yvette. The play begins in 1957, as nine-year-old Yvette Wong helps out in her parents’ café in Alistair, Saskatchewan. She’s incredibly bright but has been placed in the slow learners’ class because of her skin colour. Her mother Katherine, who was forced to attend a residential school, is conflicted about her identity and has charged Yvette with a secret— to never tell anyone she’s part Cree.

Seen through the hopeful and undaunted eyes of young Yvette, this play touches us all at time when we need it. Williams was originally inspired by the true story of Canada’s first Indigenous Senator, and our first senator of Chinese descent, the trailblazing Lillian Eva Quon Dyck.

The play is really about Yvette and her dream of being a doctor and having to fight prejudice both at home and at school in following her dreams. The play starts with a flashback of the adult Yvette remembering her journey.

Because the play takes place in 1957 language was different. For example, Indigenous people are referred to as “Indians,” a word that sounds jarring to us in 2021 but was ‘appropriate’ in the 1950s, until the reference was changed.

In 1957 Yvette Wong is a bubbly, inquisitive, curious nine-year-old who reads books on ancient Egypt for fun. Her mother is ill and plans are made for her Father, Mother and Yvette to drive to her Mother’s family on the Reservation for medical advice from her mother’s father—who knows about such things. Yvette’s Father is Chinese and her Mother is Cree. Her Mother feels that Yvette will be better served if she doesn’t tell anyone of her Indigenous heritage.

The reality for Yvette in 1957 is rather harsh. Yvette is in the “slow-learner class” which was assumed because she looks different that the ‘white’ kids. A new principal to the school realizes that Yvette is bright and asks her parents for permission to move Yvette into grade 6 instead of keeping her in grade 5. The grade 6 teacher is guilty of the blinkered way of looking at and treating students fairly, and assumes that Yvette should be in the ‘slow’ class until the principal insists.

Yvette blossoms in school. She wants to be a doctor. Yvette’s Mother has faith in her daughter, and supports her in her desire to be a doctor. Unfortunately, her Mother dies soon after and Yvette must navigate her journey herself.

Kenneth T. Williams has written a challenging play about resilience. He shows the small-minded thinking with which Yvette had to contend. Her Father thought that studying medicine was a waste of time for a girl. She should marry and her husband should take care of her and her family. In school Yvette had the support of a teacher to apply for a scholarship, but that idea changed when the teacher found out about Yvette’s Indigenous heritage.

It’s bracing to see that Yvette never lost her sense of curiosity, her integrity or her resolve in meeting every challenge and studying for what she wanted. That Café Daughter is inspired by a true story adds weight to the message. The racism that Indigenous people endured in 1957 was pretty brutal as was the racism if one was of another ethnicity. Yvette was the target of many racial slurs and she handled it all with dignity.

The set is simple on the beautiful Harvest Stage. A few doors, one of which has a simple menu on it, establishes the café run by Yvette’s father. As Yvette, April Leung is energetic, accommodating, always cheerful in her own way, never showing resentment or despair. Keith Barker has directed with economy and a good use of the space. Since April Leung plays all the parts in this one-person show, distinguishing characters in speeches is key. She (and director Keith Barker) have devised various movements and body language to establish characters. For Yvette, April Leung sits up straight with her knees together. As her supporting teacher, she sits forward a bit and her legs are spread, suggesting this is a man speaking. The shifting from one character to another is smooth and seamless.

Two actresses play the part of Yvette. April Leung played the part until Saturday, Aug. 28.

P.J. Prudat will play Yvette from Tuesday, Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.

P.J. Pruat is a fine actress in her own right. I would have loved to have seen her play Yvette for her run of the show, but alas, time does not permit. Don’t miss the chance to see this moving play of resilience with a fine actress in the part.

The Blyth Festival presents:

Plays until: Sept. 5, 2021.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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1 Kate Graham September 5, 2021 at 7:55 pm

Saw the play today. It was excellent and P. J. Pruat did an incredible performance.