by Lynn on March 19, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont. until March 20, 2022.

Written by Yolanda Bonnell

Co-directed by Cole Alvis and Samantha Brown

Choreography by Yolanda Bonnell

Set and projection design by Trevor Schwellnus

Costumes by Rachel Forbes

Lighting by Echo Zhou

Composer and sound design by Maddie Bautista

Animation and associate video design by Rihkee Strapp

Cast: Yolanda Bonnell

Elizabeth Staples

Ravyn Wngz

A sweeping, embracing story of finding one’s true inner self and culture.

The Story. Miskozi is lost. She is trying to re-connect to her Indigenous culture, teachings and ceremonies but has submerged herself in white culture as the ideal for so long, she doesn’t know how to get back to ‘herself.’ She goes on her journey for rediscovery accompanied by her inner white girl, Maabishkizi and guided by Ziibi, a manifestation of an ancestral river.

As a kid growing up in the 1980s Miskozi was enveloped in the world of popular culture, television and Disney films. She never saw people who looked like her in this world. Her ideal was Vanna White, the letter-turner on “Wheel of Fortune”: white, blonde, slim, beautiful, dressed in sparkly gowns, always smiling, perfect.

In school Miskozi always tried out for the school play/musical but never got the lead, even though she was the most talented in the auditions. A white girl with less talent got to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. A white girl with less talent got to play the lead in The Little Mermaid. Miskozi usually got cast in a minor role, one in which she was costumed to hide her brown skin. And so Miskozi believes that white is better than brown and submerges herself to attain that fake ideal. She dreams of marrying a cute member of the rock group, New Kids on the Block.

The Production. I wait in the anti-chamber for the ‘house’ to open. Projected on the wall is a photograph of Yolanda Bonnell. Animated curvy lines appear in front of the photograph suggesting water and that perhaps she is floating in the water. Above her head are projections/drawings of what could be an ornate head dress or physical thoughts or ideas of the character. Animated fish appear and swim towards the photograph and away. Yolanda Bonnell’s voice speaks of feeling like a cloud; or recites a poem. These evocative looped moments in the anti-chamber establish the world of the play so kudos to co-directors Cole Alvis and Samantha Brown, animator Rihkee Strapp and projection designer, Trevor Schwellnus.

When the ‘house’ is open for the audience Yolanda Bonnell and Elizabeth Staples sit on the ledge of the stage and warmly welcome everybody who comes into the room. Bonnell wears leotards over which is a dress with looks like ceremonial markings/design on it. Staples wears a maroon dress with markings as well. They will be joined later by Ravyn Wngs wearing a flowing dark dress with a slit up the side for easy movement. Kudos to costume designer Rachel Forbes.

In the middle of the room is a large, round platform in the form of a traditional Indigenous drum. Behind it is a smaller drum formation acting as a step up to the platform.

The same photograph of Yolanda Bonnell is projected on the upper part of the back wall of the theatre, but not with the curvy lines. We still get the sense of water because the fish appear and swim toward the photograph and then disappear. The looped voice-over plays.

When the performance is about to begin the three performers introduce themselves with Bonnell beginning in her traditional Indigenous language giving her name and where she was born, followed by English. Yolanda Bonnell plays Miskozi.  Ravyn Wngs (Ziibi, the ancestral river) is from Bermuda and is part Mohawk. Elizabeth Staples (Maabishkizi—Miskozi’s inner white girl) is of European descent (I believe).

 A traditional land acknowledgement is given with important historical context. What is abundantly clear is the embracing care that is taken to welcome the audience and make them feel safe. We are told the performance will be relaxed, the lights will not go down in the theatre to dark; if for any reason a patron feels they must leave there is a safe space in the building for them to sit and relax; there are medicines for calming at the side of the theatre; there is ceremonial smoke from smudging the room on the other side. There is even a printed program for the performance. I am impressed with this care.

Ziibi (Ravyn Wngs) appears establishing the sense of the ancestral river. Ravyn Wngs’ movement glows, grows, swells and flows with a fluidity the is evocative of water, the symbolic ancestral river that helps Miskozi find her roots.

When Miskozi appears she is wearing moccasins: white fur around the ankles, brown skin for the foundation and traditional bead work. Soon after there is a scene that depicts the first time settlers descend on the Indigenous land and Miskozi and Ziibi frantically race to pack, protect, or hide those aspects that are sacred to Indigenous culture. In the confusion she loses the moccasins.   Miskozi asks, “where do we hide the language?” (in order to protect it). She loses a braid and is upset with that. There is conversation on how to minimize the settler damage and Ziibi suggests that Miskozi cut her hair. The horrified look on Miskozi’s face quickly illuminates the depth of despair at this suggestion; what it would mean to the loss of the culture. It’s a moment that is quick and resounding in Cole Alvis and Samantha Brown’s perceptive, bold direction.

There are moments of sharp humour at the take over of Indigenous culture by the settlers in Rihkee Strapp’s animation and Trevor Schwellnus’ projection design. Paper money with the Queen’s face on it floats by; a caricature of Justin Trudeau follows. The bombardment of images erasing Indigenous independence flash on the walls of the theatre.

Miskozi imagines she is a contestant on a Wheel of Fortune type show. There is Vanna White (Elizabeth Staples), smiling, gowned, applauding—Miskozi’s idea of perfection turning the letters to reveal the answer. Over time Miskozi sinks deeper into the despair of the game, losing more of herself. Trying to stop the slide.

Ravyn Wngs plays various characters from a news caster announcing Indigenous protests and clashes with police or a Pat Sajak stand-in on the Wheel of Fortune parody. While Ravyn Wngs is a wonderful dancer, she tends to mumble her lines or speak them so softly that the words disappear. It looked like she was wearing a head microphone but it didn’t seem to work on the evening I saw the show. Pity, the words are important to hear.  

Elizabeth Staples is appropriately vapid as Vanna White and supportive as Maabishkizi—Miskozi’s inner white girl.

Yolanda Bonnell’s play is rich in historical context, metaphor, poetic expression and in the case of Miskozi, character development. Bonnell’s performance as Miskozi is compelling, full of conviction, innocent, searching, physically graceful and fearless.

Comment. As with all good theatre, White Girls in Moccasins bridges the gaps between our differences and illuminates our similarities. While I appreciate this is a specific story of Miskozi, of an Indigenous girl trying to find herself by embracing a white ideal, the play is also a universal story. All of those young girls who never fit it, no matter what ethnicity, culture or skin colour, can identify with Miskozi thinking the white, blonde, impossibly thin and dim Vanna White is the ideal for perfect. How else to explain the troubling number of young women suffering from anorexia, except as a quest for the unattainable, irrational search for thinness, thinking that’s perfection? Or the popular culture that prefers white and thin with lots of plastic surgery as opposed to a natural beauty no matter the skin colour. We have all been brainwashed to think this phony ideal is admirable. As with all theatre we bring our own backgrounds to interpret the story according to our own life-experiences.

As Miskozi goes on her journey to find her culture in herself she does gain insight and revelation as to who she really is. She frets that she will not be able to do justice to remember the traditions and ceremonies of her Indigeneity. She resolves these issues too, as she becomes more confident in her own skin. What is interesting is that, while Miskozi regains her identity, she does not acknowledge that her ideal model—the white, blonde, slim, smiling Vanna White was such a hollow, irrelevant ideal. I think the play denies itself a knowing power my not acknowledging this revelation.  

We live in a time where story and ownership are important and accusations of appropriation abound—who gets to tell the story? I think by calling the play White Girls in Moccasins Yolanda Bonnell is giving an impish wink to this idea.

Yolanda Bonnell is a gifted theatre creator. She celebrates her Indigenous culture in everything she writes be it: bug, My Sister’s Rage, a lovely vignette on TO LIVE: Living Rooms, and certainly White Girls in Moccasins. It’s well worth a look, either in person or digitally.

manidoons collective and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre present:

Runs in person until March 20, 2022.

Available digitally from March 26-April 2

Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.