Tarragon Theatre, Citadel Theatre (Edmonton) & NAC Indigenous Theatre (Ottawa)/The Herd, written by Kenneth T. Williams, directed by Tara Beagan, Tarragon Mainspace, resumes June 7 to 12. Tickets here.
Apparently, Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams’ new play The Herd came about when former Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose asked him to write an Indigenous version of Ibsen’s masterpiece, An Enemy of the People. While there are interesting things going on in Williams’ The Herd, the totality is a mixed blessing at best.
In Ibsen’s classic Norwegian play, the main premise is the suppression of truth. The town doctor claims that the mineral baths — the town’s main tourist attraction — are being poisoned by leakage from a tannery. The civic fathers ultimately refuse to make that information public.
In The Herd, the birth of twin white bison calves is attracting huge crowds to the Buffalo Pound Lake reserve. The bison is a sacred animal to Indigenous people, but the white bison has particular significance as a prophecy of hope and better times to come.
In the play, a veterinarian/geneticist, Vanessa Brokenhorn (Tai Amy Grauman), wants the crowds to leave, so she can get on with her work, which is creating a bison herd that reaches back to the bloodline purity of the original plains animals. Were these white calves born at random, and hence, fulfilling the prophecy, or were they created genetically? If it’s the latter, there go the tourists.
The rest of the characters are on different sides of the issue.
Vanessa’s brother is the chief, Michael “Baby Pete” Brokenhorn (Dylan Thomas-Bouchier), and he is torn. The tourists are good for the economy. Aislinn Kennedy (Cheyenne Scott) is from Ireland, and her main concern is protecting the EU’s investment in establishing the herd’s purity — the goal being to sell the “real thing” buffalo steaks in Europe. Coyote Jackson (Todd Houseman) is the young vlogger who publicized the birth of the white calves on social media, and absolutely believes in the prophecy, while Sheila Kennedy (Shyanne Duquette) is an elder who tries to bring sanity to the situation.
Williams also throws in romantic relationships, past and present, which just confuses the mix. In one case, he also brings up the idea of a Pretendian — someone who calls themselves an Indigenous person but whose claims are questionable. Then there’s the complication of the European Union’s involvement in tribal affairs. You also have science colliding with economic concerns, and both in conflict with traditions and rituals. A big issue, of course, is the government’s sorry treatment of Indigenous reserves — in Buffalo Pound Lakes’ case, getting the worst land.
The end result is a lot of themes and ideas whirling around the stage, which means a muddled narrative with nothing really getting resolved in a satisfactory way. On the other hand, as mentioned before, there are things of real interest in the play. For example, who knew about the EU investing in pure-line buffalo breeding?
The production is not helped by a mixed bag of acting skills. While Grauman, Houseman and Thomas-Bouchier give strong performances, Scott and Duquette are weaker vessels. Scott’s soft-voiced Irish accent comes and goes at will, while Duquette seems to speak her lines in a monotone. Apparently, director Tara Beagan picked up the baton at the last moment, which could account for the raggedy nature of the exits and entrances. On the other hand, Andy Moro’s set and video designs are very imaginative., aided by Spike Lyne’s atmospheric lighting and Samantha McCue’s character-specific costumes.
In the final analysis, The Herd is one of those plays that has a lot to recommend it in terms of issues and ideas, while fielding some perplexing narrative choices.
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