“If it hadn’t been for the hospital nearby,” says Saskatchewan playwright Kenneth Williams, “I would have been born in residential school.”
The year was 1966, when the church and Indian Affairs wanted more native staff at the schools. He spent his first eight years at the institution where his parents worked and the experience is strongly reflected in his plays.
Some readers may have met Williams or worked with him at the Young Authors’ Conference this past spring. More will become familiar with his work when Café Daughter, commissioned by Gwaandak Theatre and now in its second draft, is ready for production.
The one-woman, 15-character story revolves around Yvette, the daughter of a Chinese café owner and a First Nation mother who told Yvette not to contact that side of the family. Williams’ cousin inspired the play and gave her permission to use her account of the story.
“Her brother is still very angry, and she hopes this helps him heal,” Williams admits.
A courageous writer, Williams withstood his mother’s none-too-thrilled reaction to the news that he was not going to be a lawyer, but, rather, the first aboriginal playwriting graduate from the University of Alberta’s School of Fine Arts.
He’s learned that although writers need to be empathic, “they should grow a thick skin and go and get scared.
“Use the fear of your topic to grow, not to stunt you.” Williams gives himself “mountains to climb and I seem to make it an Everest every time.”
For example, in Gordon Winter, he examines David Ahenakew’s story. Ahenakew is a former National Chief of the the Assembly of First Nations who achieved groundbreaking First Nation rights recognition in Canada, only to have it overshadowed by a false parallel to the Holocaust. Far from justifying Ahenakew’s statement, Williams looks at “what happens to someone’s great work when they make a stupid statement.”
Before Williams found his talent for playwriting, he was a journalist and photojournalist, which influences his understanding of events. But, as a playwright, he can concentrate on dialogue to tell the story.
When asked if playwriting lends itself to a First Nation storytelling style, he says, “My instinct is to say ‘yes’, but we’re not seeing First Nations rise up in theatre.”
However, Williams is steadily creating new opportunities, and his plays attract top Canadian actors. The 2008 Edmonton production of Three Little Birds starred Tantoo Cardinal opposite her son, Clifford, and in fall 2009, Lorne Cardinal performed in the Saskatchewan production of Williams’ play, Thunderstick.
Williams says it is valuable to have actors participate early in the dramaturgy process: “When they read the roles aloud in a workshop, their immediate reactions tell me what works and connects for them,” he says.
Yukoners can learn what works for them when Gwaandak Theatre announces casting calls for the debut of Café Daughter. Visit www.gwaandaktheatre.com for updates.