'The Rez Sisters': 28 Years Later, More Relevant Than Ever

Janet Marie Rogers reviews the dynamic and timely production of Tomson Highway's 1986 play The Rez Sisters, on view at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria.

The Rez Sisters, the 1986 play by iconic indigenous playwright Tomson Highway that celebrates Native women, with all their flaws and complex relationships, is nearing the end of its run at the Belfry Theater in Victoria, British Columbia. With the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) continuing to grow, it was a well-timed revival, to say the least. The latest version of the beloved play has been in the works for awhile; director Peter Hinton said he wanted to direct Sisters many years ago and Belfry Theatre’s artistic director Michael Shamata made attempts to produce the play for two years.

Timing plays a role, almost as an unseen character. The roles are perfectly cast, thanks to the vast field of seasoned Native actors working today. Assistant director Ryan Cunningham, Metis, has been there to provide his Indigenous expertise. And of course Tomson himself, although never present during any stage of this production, haunts each performance with an undeniably ghost-like presence. This play is extremely important today, as it stars an excellent ensemble cast of all native women and one two-spirit dancer, which gives voice to the lack of female leadership on reserves and which unapologetically includes the ongoing violence against Native women. Rez Sisters is pulled from the Canadian playwright’s archives and with only a few updates is able to be enjoyed by (mostly non-Native) audiences today.

Cast of 'The Rez Sisters' on stage at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, BC.

Tantoo Cardinal, Cree actor with a list of credits almost as long as the list of MMIW, grounds the entire performance as leader, as Elder, as Mama Bear in her role. As Pelajia Petchnose, she is the voice of reason among the hysterical voices, gossipy voices, extreme voices and babbling voices. Tomson writes these females as three-dimensional, living, breathing and dreaming women who want better things in life, including the bingo jackpot of $500,000. Reneltta Arluk plays the bi-sexual left-the-rez-but-came-back Emily Dictionary. Tiffany Ayalik as Zhaboonigan Peterson is the extremely damaged, hanging-on-by-a-thread rape survivor; her adopted mother, Veronique St. Pierre, is tightly-wound, presumably religious, and nosey, and is played perfectly by Cheri Maracle. Tasha Faye Evans believably plays the cancer-ridden Marie Adele Starblanket who is enticed by the wide-eyed music lover Annie Cook (played by Lisa C. Ravensbergen) to make the trip to Toronto to play in the world's largest Bingo despite her illness. We learn the simplicity of the Rez Sisters' wants through Philomena Moosetail (played by Tracey Nepinak), whose dream is to own her own toilet.

Originally, the role of Nanabush (trickster) was written for Tomson’s brother and dynamic dancer Renee Highway, who passed away in 1990. Waawaate Fobister employs his skills as a trained contemporary dancer to convey unspoken expressions we follow with intuitive understanding.

Cast of 'The Rez Sisters' on stage at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, BC.

To say the 2014 Belfry Theatre's production of The Rez Sisters is a hit would be understating the many ways this play has impacted and will continue to impact theater-goers on Vancouver Island. It is a shame there are no plans at this time for the production to tour as the nation is in great need to see strong inspiring native women who swim in their abilities and live strong, though difficult lives. Besides, it’s great theater, an historic theater experience and yes, completely timely.

The Rez Sisters can bee seen at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, British Columbia through Sunday, October 19th, 2014. Putchase tickets through the Belfry Theatre Box Office: belfry.bc.ca/the-rez-sisters or 250-385-6815 boxoffice@belfry.bc.ca