by Lynn on July 5, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District, Toronto, Ont. Co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper Theatre Company.  Playing until July 24, 2022.

NOTE: I received the following e-mail ( Sunday, July 3) from Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper who are producing Kamloopa, written and directed by Kim Senklip Harvey, which I saw July 2: 




Dear Lynn,

Thank you for coming out to the theatre to see Kamloopa by Kim Senklip Harvey, co-produced with Native Earth Performing Arts! We sincerely hope you enjoyed the show – and if so, would appreciate your help in spreading the word in getting people back out to live theatre! Join the conversation on social media using #spKamloopa or simply tell your friends what you thought of the show!

We are especially grateful to you for coming to support live theatre and we hope to see you again soon!

— Everyone at Native Earth & Soulpepper”

Hmmmmmm. Troubling and confusing. Those few of us who still write reviews were in fact asked not to write reviews of Kamloopa by writer/director Kim Senklip Harvey, via the press offices of both Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper Theatre company. Press tickets would not be given, as is the norm, in exchange for a review.

As per this e-mail from both Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper press offices:

“Regarding reviewing the show, we are not inviting critics to review Kamloopa. In this way, we are not giving typical media accreditation for review at the opening but would still love to invite you to come and engage with the work as an audience member on any other performance date. There is no requirement, expectation, or traditional ask for a review with this invitation.

We will be focusing instead on uplifting and highlighting the audience’s experiences and responses – particularly that of the Indigenous audience to the show.”

Hmmmmm. “…focusing on uplifting and highlighting the audience’s experience and responses….” But isn’t that what a review is, at its simplest? And isn’t a theatre critic really an ‘embedded member of an audience’ already? Seems like a lot of mis-information of what a review actually is, who it’s for and who writes it.

And as we gladly embrace a world of inclusion, unity and diversity, I must confess that …”focusing instead on uplifting and highlighting the audience’s experiences and responses—particularly that of the Indigenous audience to the show” seems counter to “inclusion, unity and diversity. It seems like preferring one audience at the expense of the other. Now that can’t be right. Why aren’t both audiences embraced equally? Who speaks for ‘the other audience’?

I think of the elegant program note (for Kamloopa) of Native Earth’s Artistic Director, Keith Barker who wrote: “Indigenous stories are vital to the cultural narrative of this country, and Native Earth remains dedicated to sharing the Indigenous experience through live performance. Like the Two Row Wampum Treaty, we believe the only way to move forward in a good way, is side by side, together. These relationships allow us to better understand each other in meaningful ways….”

I felt that the fairest, most equitable way of expressing my opinion, ‘spreading the word’ if you will, was to buy a ticket (not to opening night) and write my review of what I experienced at Kamloopa. Here’s the review:

Written and directed by Kim Senklip Harvey

Set by Daniela Masellis

Costumes by Samantha McCue

Sound and composition by Alaska B

Lighting, video and projection design by potatoCakes_digital

Choreography and movement director, Aria Evans

Cast: Yolanda Bonnell

Samantha Brown

Kaitlyn Yott

A raucous, free-wheeling, wild story of sisterly love, of buying into the clichés held by others and being tweaked by a Trickster to embracing ones’ identity.

The Story. Kilawna and Mikaya are sisters living together in an apartment. They experience the usual sibling frustrations. Kilawna is the older sister, more serious, seems to be the neater of the two and always picks up after Mikaya. She works in an office. Mikaya is irreverent, is a student but often misses class, much to the consternation of Kilawna. Both sisters lament insensitive comments they receive as Indigenous women: Kilawna from her white supervisor and Mikaya from her ‘liberal’ course instructor of Indigenous studies. (While Kamloopa was published in 2018 and won the Governor General’s Award in 2020, I wonder when playwright Kim Senklip Harvey has set the play since the comments from Kilawna’s supervisor would not be tolerated within the last three years, and a white liberal would not be accepted as an instructor for an Indigenous course within the same time period.).

The sisters decide to have an evening out where they meet the mysterious ‘Indian Friend # 1 (also known as ‘the Trickster) who appears in their apartment the next day. The Indian Friend #1 tells the sisters that she is going to instruct them in how to be a proud Indigenous Woman. This involves a road trip (with Kilawna driving) to Kamloopa, the name of the largest powwow in Western Canada just outside Kamloops, B.C.—a celebration of dance, song and Indigenous ceremonies of joy.

The Production. The play opens with Mikaya (Kaitlyn Yott) sleeping on the couch. The kitchen is at the back (set by Daniela Masellis). Stuff is strewn on the floor. Kilawna (Samantha Brown) enters with a laundry basket, sees her sister sleeping on the couch, sighs, and begins to pick up stuff on the floor to tidy. This seems to be a regular routine. Mikaya wakes suddenly from what doesn’t seem to be a restful sleep. Over the course of the play she will also have breathing issues that are more symbolically present than indicate health issues. The breathing issues can be seen as Mikaya being at odds with her Indigeneity until she fully embraces it, and she breathes easier.

As Kilawna, Samantha Brown is serious, resigned at having to pick up after her sister and perhaps burdened by what is happening at work. Kaitlyn Yott plays Mikaya with a lively prickliness as the younger sister. There is a real sense of impatience between the interplay of the sisters as Kilawna tries to rouse her sister to go to class and be more responsible and Mikaya balking at her sister’s nagging.

The sisters seem united in their concern of what white people think of them as Indigenous women. They feel the pressure of what others think of them and all Indigenous people, no matter what the stereotype. Mikaya is the one to suggest a night out. The next morning they discover Indian Friend #1 (The Trickster), a fearless, irreverent Yolanda Bonnell, who takes charge and tells the sisters she is going to teach them how to be true Indians. (Of course, the Trickster is exactly that—a spirit that fools people into believing one thing that might not be true). Most of the robust, raw humour is supplied by an animated Yolanda Bonnell. But this Trickster is a true Indian Friend #1 and also speaks truths to the sisters. She tells them they are going on a road trip (actually about one day’s travel with a camping stop at night) to “Kamloopa, to learn about their Indigenous culture.  Indian Friend # 1 tells the sisters late in Act II they have to stop tearing each other apart and that seems to be the catalyst that sets them on the road to healing, finding their Indigenous roots and embracing the symbolic animals and ancestors on the way. 

Kudos to potatoCakes_digital for the video and projection design. Images of a coyote (Senklip) a grizzly bear and a raven are projected on screens at the back of the set as the three women drive through the beautiful land on the road to Kamloops. Indian Friend # 1 refers to Kilawna as “Grizzly Bear and that image becomes part of Kilawna’s identity as she goes deeper into her cultural discovery.” Mikaya is the coyote with similar melding of images. Yolanda Bonnell as Indian Friend #1 holds out her arms and gracefully turns her body embracing the image of the raven who oversees everything.

Kim Senklip Harvey’s play is rich in Indigenous ancestral images, reference to sacred animals, lines occasionally given in ǹsǝⅼxciǹ are not translated in the play but are translated in the text of the play, which I bought and read before-hand. (The text also has essays about protocols and intention which I didn’t read. The play should make the playwright’s intentions clear to all viewers and their various life experiences.)

The play is dense with irreverent jokes, songs, frequent moments of animosity to settlers and the sisters’ perceived assumption that the settlers are constantly trying to keep them down all the time. Fortunately, Indian Friend # 1 acts as the voice that one hopes takes both sisters away from that constant blaming of others for their insecurity and forward to accept their Indigeneity with pride. Still at 2 hours and 20 minutes with an intermission, Kamloopa could do with cutting to tighten the story.

Comment. The coyote (senklip) is sacred to Indigenous culture (as are all animals) and Kim Senklip Harvey got the idea for the play when she was driving on her traditional Syilx territories and accidentally hit a coyote. The play evolved from there as a celebration of Indigenous women. Kim Senklip Harvey also writes in her programme note: “Crashing into my animal (the coyote) was a calling from the other worlds to help keep Indigenous women alive and that’s what Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story is. It is my humble offer to ignite the power that lives within Indigenous women and peoples. This play…is my love letter to Indigenous women who deserve spaces and stories that honour the multidimensional nature of our very existence…”

Mention must also be made of those on whose sturdy shoulders Kim Senklip Harvey and emerging playwrights are standing—the Indigenous playwrights and artists who have been giving space and voice to Indigenous women and people for at least 40 years (through Native Earth, Soulpepper and other companies): Tomson Highway, Marie Clements, Drew Hayden Taylor, Monique Mojica, Jani Lauzon, Yvette Nolan, Cheri Maracle, Columpa C. Bobb, Daniel David Moses, Tracey Nepinak and Tara Beagan, to name only a few.

The clear focus of this production of Kamloopa is that it is intended for Indigenous women without explanation to other audiences. The group of Indigenous women at my performance were given a shout-out and considered “Honoured Guests” by the cast.  But as with all theatre that is very specific, universal aspects are evident as we reflect our own cultures and life experiences by watching the play. I note there are other cultures that seem to perceive themselves as constant victims of oppression by others as Kilawna and Mikaya lament their lot in life to the oppression of settlers, until Indian Friend # 1 tells them to embrace their Indigeneity.  

Considering that the play is meant for an Indigenous audience I wonder why the play is performed in the rigid confines of a theatre, looking only forward in ‘rigid’ seats, instead of in an inclusive, embracing, fluid circle where, according to my readings and teachings by elders, Indigenous storytelling is told.  

Co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and Soulpepper Theatre Company:

Playing until: July 24, 2022.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, (including 1 intermission)

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