Kenneth T. Williams had never heard of his distant cousin, Lillian Dyck, until 1999, when he was asked to suggest names of suitable Saskatchewan candidates for the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award.
He first approached another cousin, a well-known writer and aboriginal historian, who told him, “No, no, no. Don’t nominate me. I want to nominate Lillian Dyck.”
Williams soon learned that Dyck was a nuerochemist (and now a member of the Canadian senate) who was born in North Battleford in the 1940s.
Her mother came from the same Cree reserve as his own mother, and her father had been a Chinese café owner.
Among the questions he asked Dyck during the screening process was how her parents had met. That’s when she told him about a law that had been in effect in Saskatchewan until 1960, forbidding white women to work in Chinese-owned restaurants.
“I was actually quite flabbergasted. I had never heard of this law,” Williams says. “I made her repeat it, just to make sure I had heard correctly.”
Delving deeper, Williams learned that Dyck – although a bright student – had once been consigned to a slow learners’ class, because she was a different colour from the other kids.
He also learned that his cousin was just 10 when her mother died – but not before having a big falling-out with her Cree relatives and ordering her daughter to have nothing to do with that side of the family.
As Williams explains it, the mother told young Lillian it would be easier for her growing up if no one knew she was part Cree.
“Chinese aren’t treated much better, but they are treated better. So tell everyone you’re Chinese, never admit you’re Indian, and cut yourself off from that side of the family. They won’t do you any good,” he paraphrases.
“And she lived by this order until she herself had graduated with her PhD and was the same age that her mother was when she died.”
Although Williams had a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from the University of Alberta, he had been working as a journalist since his graduation.
“The lightbulb went off that there was an amazing story here almost immediately,” he says. “As any journalist knows, the second you hear a story no one else has heard before, you’ve got to go get it.”
At a media conference in 2001, Williams met a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker and told him about Lillian Dyck, including the discriminatory law that had resulted in her parents’ meeting.
“The first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘We’ve got to make a movie about this.'”
After several attempts to come up with a film script, the pair realized it wasn’t working. That’s when Williams decided to write it first as a play.
“A play is how I think. A play is how I approach stories in the first point.”
In 2008, Whitehorse playwrights Patti Flather and Leonard Linklater put out a call for proposals for a play their company, Gwaandak Theatre, could commission.
By this time, Williams had already had several plays produced, including Thunderstick,Suicide Notes, AWOL: Aboriginals Without Official Leave, Three Little Birds, and Bannock Republic, a sequel to Thunderstick.
The idea Gwaandak chose was his story of a Cree-Chinese girl growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, called Café Daughter.
“I’m a writer who likes to pare things down. I want to get it as to-the-bone as possible,” Williams says. “I really wanted to make it intimate.”
The result is a one-person play “about a little girl and what she’s seen and what she’s grown up with.”
Café Daughter tells the story of Yvette Wong, focusing on two crucial points in her life.
Yvette is nine years old in the first act, and her mother is still alive. In the second act, at 16, she is determined to break away from the life her father has chosen for her and pursue her academic interests.
While closely based on Lillian Dyck’s early life, the story has been fictionalized to a certain extent.
Williams insists that the play is not about racism or unjust laws, but about universal human themes, such as the “push-pull” between a child’s need for family and sense of security, and the necessary search for independence.
“Yvette Wong is an adorable little girl with this problem. You want to root for Yvette,” Williams says.
” What I want the audience to come out with is, ‘Omigod, what an amazing story that is. I felt bad when she screwed up, and when she had to do this, or when she had to make that hard decision in her life.’ That’s what I want you to come away with.”
Café Daughter stars Saskatchewan actor PJ Prudat and is directed by Yvette Nolan.
It will open May 4 at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre in Dawson City, before touring to other Yukon communities. Details are available at www.gwaandaktheatre.com/