By: Allison Hagg
Firstly, I want to establish something. This is not a review; this is a documentation of an experience. I am not a theatre critic and have neither the qualifications nor desire to be. God knows New York has a surplus of aspiring critics to rival its aspiring actors, and, up to now, the most experience I’ve had with theatre is a couple of touristy Broadway musicals and some community theatre in Minneapolis. What I’m writing here is a reaction built off of no theatrical and critical knowledge or experience, just the musings of a closeted hick. Take it as you will.
Last Friday, I was bestowed with the opportunity to attend “Among the Cedars,” an “immersive” play about the Canadian artist Emily Carr. At first, I was deeply intrigued by the immersive aspect of the play, which called for the audience literally following the action from room to room. I had visions of McKittrick Hotel’s “Sleep No More,” which, although I haven’t seen it and know next to nothing about it, still sounds like the height of avant garde theatre to my germinating sense of taste. I know, so 2015. But this experience was not at all as I pictured. Perhaps it’s the semi-repressed and apologetic British person who took up camp somewhere in my psyche after I lived in the UK for a year, but it all just felt a bit awkward.
Anyone who has been to a swinging house party will know that even a 2-story penthouse in this city is likely not conducive to movement of a small mass of people, and the shuffling that took place between scenes as everyone made their way to the next room took just long enough to make the play itself feel a bit cut up. About half of us were forced to squeeze sardine-style and stand in the back of the chairs, something which ultimately led to chairs being left open in the last acts out of what must have been some kind of shamed group politeness. Personally, I took this as a heartening sign of the perseverance of human dignity and sat down.
I also found myself unwittingly positioned in the way of the actors a couple of times. At one point, two actors embraced in a careless and passionate kiss which pressed forth despite the imminent presence of a small woman attempting to wrangle her coat and purse while slowly shrinking out of the way. It was a real drag, and I don’t really think the play would have suffered much if we hadn’t been herded like sheep into small-capacity rooms with chairs for maybe half our number.
But, enough of the logistical griping. The play itself was interesting, and, other than the problems of space, I was surprised at just how well the minimalist sets spread out in gutted apartment rooms and lit by those pseudo-spiritual pink Himalayan salt lamps worked. It was undoubtedly intimate, fitting for a play that is so concerned with the relationships and ties that we build and grapple with throughout our lives. The performances were for the most part strong. There were more than a couple line flubs, although the cast handled them with as much grace as something called a “flub” allows for. Carr’s sisters played by Molly Chiffer and Katherine Elliot provided some nice moments of humor and tenderness in the middle and later acts while Sparrowhawk brought a confidence and steady power as Henry, and Taylor Red Fox emanated an affection and sincerity as Sara.
My biggest reservation about the play itself is in a sense of there being something missing. The play begins as if it were an opening of an exhibition of the subject, artist Emily Carr’s, work. We are addressed by a woman with indigenous heritage who speaks of the power and importance of the paintings which pay tribute to the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe and their homeland. Being trained in the sphere of liberal skepticism, I was cautiously unconvinced of observing the beauty of an Indigenous culture through a white woman’s eyes. Luckily, the play itself anticipated my cynicism. The actor, Sparrowhawk, having been strategically placed among the audience, rose up at this point asking the very question, is this not somehow stealing, profiting off of a culture without giving them their due? He is immediately and passionately rebuffed by a woman sitting off to the side who, would you believe it, turns out to be Emily Carr herself. She promises that was not her intention, and, if we only let her tell her story and let the paintings speak for themselves, we will see.
The story is sold as a look at Carr’s life and a tribute to the artist, and I think that it does this fairly well. There were many people with Indigenous backgrounds involved in the production, and, indeed, the representation of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation seems to be multi-dimensional and empathetic. They do call out some hypocrisies, and the playwright does make a point to show just how stupid the assumptive racism from some of the characters is. Basically, they did everything right. But after this opening I wanted to look a little deeper into the question of the voices of the Native people who impacted Carr so much. To be fair, I don’t think the play ever explicitly promises this. I was just hoping for a little more from this story that I feel like I’ve seen before. In the end I guess we’re supposed to think that because she lived with people of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation and made a place for herself in the community, it’s okay she painted the paintings.
That’s alright, although it smacks a bit of the “walk in another person’s shoes” cliché. But there is a notable scene of the play when Carr forcibly draws a totem which she is told is the owner would not want her to do, and then bullies Sara, her native “sister,” into convincing the owner to let her do it (while doing it anyway). It felt like an obvious and uncomfortable moment of Carr’s selfish white privilege taking control, but it goes basically unaddressed, and it all turns out that the drawing is so good the owner doesn’t really mind she made it; everyone is just so happy for Carr. What are we supposed to make of this? That the hero of our story is flawed? That art is more powerful than cultural boundaries? I don’t know, and that’s what leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t want to suggest that I think Carr’s work isn’t worthy of admiration nor that she was somehow a bad person. But I don’t like that it basically ends with the question of whose voices get to be heard looming larger than ever. I don’t like that it ends with Sparrowhawk simply sitting back down and shutting up as the story we just witnessed were enough of an answer. I guess I want the play to be something that it was never trying to be.
Women’s voices being heard is, of course, important, but with Columbus Day having just come round, and, having spent an unsuccessful 15 minutes trying to change the preset holiday on my phone to “Indigenous People’s Day,” I’ve been thinking about just how much Native voices aren’t heard. And, I suppose the fact that this play involves so many people of Indigenous heritage means that, in a way, it is already addressing that issue, but it’s still doing so through a narrative focused on the journey of the white woman that comes to town. It seems like the Indigenous Rights movement hasn’t made its way into larger cultural consciousness the way “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” have, even though atrocities rendered against indigenous people have been going on for centuries before “America” was even a thing.
Do you remember the DAPL (the Dakota access pipeline)? I do, but only because it popped out of a back folder of my mind while writing this piece. It came and disappeared for most of us with just a fluttering of social media attention. Just the fact that the entire movement of Indigenous Rights is reduced, in my mind, to this one, albeit major, issue speaks to a disgraceful lack of space in our social consciousness. We just seem to have such a terrible memory when it comes to Native Peoples. I don’t know if it’s deep-seeded shame at the centuries of senseless cruelty we’ve wrecked on them (I’m speaking as a white person), or if it’s just selfish and racist ignorance. Probably a bit of both. Either way it’s got to start changing. It’s way past being time to start changing. I’m ready to see a play where Native people are the main characters and not the supporting cast, where they’re not relegated to spiritual conductors for the white character’s experience.But anyway, that’s not what this play is about. This play is about Emily Carr and her story. and that, in itself, is interesting and powerful with a twist of incest. There are worse ways to spend a Friday night in Greenwich Village. But wear good shoes.
Allison Hagg is a roving Minnesotan and sometimes writer currently living and studying in the Upper West Side of New York City.