Associate Toronto Theatre Critic
I Call myself Princess is a remarkable new play that deals with cultural appropriation in the best way possible — by taking back that which was stolen. Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre, partnering with Native Earth Performing Arts, are presenting this world premiere of I Call myself Princess, written by Jani Lauzon.
When Métis student William (Aaron Wells) discovers a hundred-year-old opera about a Creek/Cherokee Mezzo Soprano named Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), he begins to learn of the struggles faced by Indigenous performers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the sacrifices they had to make, and how it has all shaped William’s life in 2018. To his frustration, William discovers that many of the Indigenous songwriters of the past had their works stolen and repurposed without credit.
William begins reading, studying, and discovering the events of Tsianina’s story. Director Marjorie Chan cleverly depicts this by having the other characters acting out the moments that William is reading about, weaving them into the space surrounding him, even to the point of one of them “sharing” a book with him. This subtle interaction with the past eventually leads to Tsianina and William connecting across time and space and interacting with one another. The two debate about whether it was right for Tsianina to partner with a white composer and allow him to take Indigenous music and “idealize” it with the intention of ensuring her story (and that of her people) was not lost to history. William teaches Tsianina about the ramifications of her actions, and Tsianina helps set William on his life’s path.
Instead of getting bogged down by the weight of its extremely important socio-cultural message, I Call myself Princess speaks its piece but never ceases to be engaging and entertaining, and even finds many moments of wonderfully wry humour. As William, Mr. Wells creates a charming, sensitive, and thoroughly modern character, playing opposite the characters of the past effectively. He draws us in and makes us feel his struggle, and when he sings with his warm, operatic voice, it is transformative.
Ms. Newman’s Tsianina is remarkable. The naïveté of her early years as a teenaged performer, the struggle of having to perform while overcome with sadness over the loss of her mother, and the world-weary but determined woman in her thirties is all presented so distinctly. And her singing voice soars so powerfully, it’s almost a character of its own.
Richard Greenblatt acts as well as he plays piano (spoiler alert: both are top notch) as he portrays the charming and exasperated Charles Wakefield Cadman, a real historical figure who was so focused on bringing Tsianina’s story to white American audiences that much of the “idealization” of indigenous music occurred at his hands, and likely without him truly understanding the negative repercussions of his actions. Cadman also had the frustration of navigating the social minefield of being a gay man in the early twentieth century. Throughout much of the play, we are treated to Mr. Greenblatt’s beautiful piano-playing skills as he sets the play’s varying moods nicely.
Along with two minor male characters, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster plays the enthusiastic Nelle Eberhart, who worked tirelessly with Charles and Tsianina to bring the opera to life while fighting for her own place in society as a woman in the arts. Ms. Lancaster infuses her character with a wonderful magnetic energy.
Howard Davis also plays more than one role, but it is in his wonderfully nuanced turn as William’s struggling yet supportive boyfriend, Alex, that Mr. Davis truly shines. He and Mr. Wells share a solid chemistry, even when having a phone conversation on opposite sides of the stage.
Lighting Designer, Kaitlin Hickey, sets the mood with very distinct cool tones for William’s present day, and bathes the stage with soft, warm colours for Tsianina’s world. Ms. Hickey’s use of shadows is also quite effective, particularly during the opening and closing sequences of the play. The set design by Christina Urquhart is minimalist but extremely effective in the way that it enhances the plays themes of separation, the connections between the past and the present, and finding one’s place in the world.
The persecution of the Indigenous people in this country is a tremendous wrong that our society needs to learn more about and be more aware of. I Call myself Princess is a beautiful, haunting, and thoroughly entertaining place to start.
Photo of (L-R) Richard Greenblatt, Aaron Wells, Marion Newman, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, and Howard Davis provided by Dahlia Katz (www.dahliakatz.com).
I Call myself Princess is being staged until September 30, 2018 at the wonderfully intimate Aki Studio in the Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East, Toronto.
Showtimes are at 8:00 pm Tuesday to Saturday with 2:00 pm matinees on Sundays.
The show is approximately 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
More details are available at www.cahoots.ca/shows/princess or call 416-531-1402.