Review: NIIZH

by Lynn on April 24, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the AKI STUDIO of the Daniels Spectrum, Toronto, Ont. Playing until April 30, 2023.

Written by Joelle Peters

Directed by desirée leverenz

Set by Nancy Perrin

Lighting and projections by Hailey Verbonac

Sound by Jenna Geen

Costumes by Nishina Loft

Videography by Bawaadan Collective

Cast: Theresa Cutknife

Kole Durnford

Jason McDonald

Aren Okemaysim

PJ Prudat

A gentle and thoughtful play about cherishing home but wanting to leave it, wanting to come back and appreciate it and embracing one’s family.

The Story. It’s about Lenna Little, a young Indigenous woman preparing to leave her father and brother Jay who live on the reserve and go to university in the city. While she has a prickly relationship with her father, she loves her family and the life on the reserve. She respects the land and its beauty and the bounty of the place. But she is like a bird, or Niizh in Cree and longs to explore the wider world.

At the same time Sam Thomas is a young Indigenous man who has been living with his mother in the city but he longs to find out about his Indigenous roots. So he leaves home to go on an extended visit to his aunt KC Thomas who lives on the same reserve and is a neighbour of Lenna and her family. Lenna and Sam form a special bond when they share their hopes and dreams about the lives they want to live.  

The Production.   Nancy Perrin’s set is of the inside of the Little kitchen and front yard. Close by next door is KC Thomas’ house. At the beginning of the play Lenna (Theresa Cutknife) stands on a section of the set stage right of the house and yard. She is in a secret place that belonged to her late grandfather. We get a sense it’s not only secret, it’s sacred because of its expanse, seclusion, lushness and huge sky above. She promised him that she would take care of his beloved land and she has. She has come here to offer him a prayer and to tell his spirit that she is going to university. Theresa Cutknife’s tone in Lenna’s prayer to the spirit of her grandfather is almost reverential. It’s quite moving. Respect for elders and certainly Lenna’s dearly departed elder is so clear in Joelle Peters’ play and desirée leverenz’s direction.

As played by Theresa Cutknife, Lenna is obviously torn about having to leave her responsibility of taking care of her grandfather’s land, but also being true to herself and going off and exploring new worlds, beginning with university. Lenna also has a rocky relationship with her brusque but jokey father Billy Little (Jason McDonald). He runs a store and expects Lenna to help out whenever he requests it, regardless of what plans she also has on in preparation for leaving. Lenna is exasperated with the sudden commands to help and tries to check her attitude. In any case Billy Little, as played with quiet command by Jason McDonald, does not take ‘any lip’ from Lenna. He won’t put up with irritation and what he thinks is his right—that she will help out when he asks her to. So she makes him a sandwich on demand, cleans up after him, helps in the store and grudgingly does his bidding. One gets a sense of how women are considered and treated in that family by how Lenna is treated by her father Billy and her brother Jay (Aren Okemaysim), and references to her absent mother.

Jay comes and goes as he pleases without any demands put upon him. As Jay, Aren Okemaysim is a happy-go-lucky man who maneuvers his world with ease. It’s slowly revealed that there are issues between Jay and his father and they manifest themselves in a way that is different than Lenna and her father—again, there is a sense that a son is treated differently than a daughter.

As Lenna is preparing to leave the reserve for the city and university, Sam Thomas (Kole Durnford) is coming back from the city to the reserve for an extended stay with his aunt, KC Thomas (PJ Prudat). Kole Durnford brings out Sam’s sweetness and camaraderie with Lenna. They are soulmates in a way and share perspectives and attitudes about the world. Sam also finds a warm welcome from his aunt KC. As played by PJ Prudat, she is non-judgmental, accommodating and open-hearted.

The production is directed with imagination and thought by desirée leverenz. In many scenes with Lenna there is an animation of a bird about to take off into the world projected onto the back wall of the set. The bird is symbolic of Lenna’s impending departure from the reserve. I loved that symbolism.

Joelle Peters does have a facility with story-telling and language. I do think that the writing can be tightened a bit with judicious editing.  At times some scenes towards the end are laggy because they go on past the point of useful information. A bit of editing would do to tighten and strengthen the play.

Comment. Niizh is a play and story we can all identify with—we want to go off into the world to explore, but we also want to embrace home and learn more about it. While Joelle Peters has centered the play in Indigenous life and culture, the story is applicable to other cultures, which speaks to the universality of the story.

Native Earth Performing Arts presents:

Plays until April 30, 2023.

Running Time: 100 minutes (with no intermission)

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