By Drew Hayden Taylor
Originally published in July 2011
It seems there is much ado about something in the city of Toronto these days and, oddly enough, it’s in the theatre world.
It seems Soulpepper Theatre’s recent production of the 1960 classic musical The Fantasticks has raised the ire of many local Aboriginal artists.
One of the canon’s most beloved musicals is, in itself, rather innocuous, all except the inclusion of one character halfway through the first act. His name is Mortimer, and he’s got a cockney accent, and is dressed as an Indian. A flagrantly over the top, stereotypical, war-paint wearing, bumbling fool Indian, who’s not really an Indian we’re told. And as another fellow playwright once wrote, ‘Aye, there’s the rub’.
Many people in the Native theatre community have some severe issues with that character, who in the context of the play is an itinerant actor hired to help in the pretend abduction of a young woman to make her fall in love with a young man.
So that’s how White people fall in love. I’ve always wondered.
According to the stage directions, Mortimer “emerges dressed in a loin cloth and a feather, and playing a drum”.
Tara Beagen, the Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s premiere Native theatre company, has issues with Mortimer and the play. She and a group of fellow artists saw the play and had the same general reaction.
In a letter to Soulpepper’s Artistic Director Albert Schultz and his Board of Directors Beagen writes “the portrayal of the imbecilic actor in costume as an ‘Indian’ in the Fantasticks was so offensive to me that I actually had to concentrate on breathing. I felt winded – as though I had suffered a blow to the gut. That was followed by nausea and then numbness.”
The response from other First Nations patrons was essentially the same. After all this Tara invited me to see the play, and I did.
In all fairness, the whole play reeks of political incorrectness. Not quite believing what I saw and wanting to make sure I saw what I saw, I found a copy of the text and read it. There exists within the play a song titled “Oh rape! Sweet Rape!” Believe it or not, it goes something like this:
“We can get the rape emphatic.
We can get the rape polite.
We can get the rape with Indians:
A truly charming sight.
So you see the sort of rape
Depends on what you play.”
Not quite the Lion King, is it? Plus, this ode to rape is sung by the young couple’s fathers. Upon investigation, I was told that in some circles back then, this kind of reference i.e. rape, meant an abduction rather than an act of sexual violence. Still, it kind of grates on the conscience a bit. Elsewhere in the play, there is a line where one of the other itinerant actors yells to his cockney faux First Nations buddy:
“Indians ready? Indians – rape!”
There have been obvious steps to update this play, which has been one of the most successful and longest running musicals in Broadway history. However in many recent productions, this particular song has been omitted and a new, more politically correct song inserted. And I noticed in the Toronto production, a line of text had been altered. The leader of the actors says to the audience “He’s not actually Native American.” In the context of that play, that stood out. In the original text, the line actually reads “He’s not actually Indian.” And the ‘Indians –rape!’ line was changed to “Indians – abduct!”
Now here’s the problem. I am completely sympathetic with A.D. Beagen’s opinion. Still, it should be said it is a white guy, playing a white guy, playing an Indian. I do not believe the play was meant at any point to be an accurate or realistic portrayal of Native life.
Mortimer makes his entrance and exit by climbing out of a box at centre stage. It is a play of its time. As a Native person and artist, I wouldn’t want other non-Native artists to be fearful of producing or being forced to edit pre-existing works. Though The Fantasticks isn’t 1/100th nearly as good, where would Tom Sawyer be without Injun Joe or The Merchant of Venice be without Shylock?
My response to Mortimer the Indian wasn’t quite as visceral as Ms. Beagen’s and the rest. With that being said, I did feel an itch when the audience laughed at the cartoonesque antics of Mortimer.
Imagine the wit, wisdom and cultural sensitivity of a member of the Three Stooges dressed as an Indian.
Alas, I did not laugh. I did not sing along. I did not enjoy myself. As a theatre artist and patron, I think that says more.