If any famous Canadian deserves a Heritage Minute, it’s poet E. Pauline Johnson.
The daughter of a Six Nations Mohawk Chief and an English mother, Johnson toured across North America and England in the late 19th century, earning recognition everywhere she went. Audiences and literary critics, both contemporary and modern, praised Johnson’s poetry for its evocative imagery and urgent voice. Through her poetry, Johnson brought attention to the struggles of women and First Nations people.
Johnson’s life is chronicled in Paddle Song, written by Dinah Christie with Tom Hill. From her childhood days spent on the Grand River to the early days of her prosperous career, and beyond, the one-woman show stages an elegant presentation of the poet’s life. Canadian actress, singer-songwriter Cheri Maracle stars as Johnson, delivering a performance best summed as genuinely captivating.
The set-up is fairly straightforward, as most biographical plays are. Paddle Song takes the audience through the poet’s upbringing, her inspirations, and most importantly, her insecurities. Johnson’s insecurities stem from her entering into a field historically dominated by (white) men. The praise written about her in the papers is uplifting, but also the cause of much anxiety as she feels burdened with expectations (magnified by her status as a woman of mixed heritage).
Johnson also deals with the difficulties of touring, specifically the physical strain on her body. Perhaps fueled by a desire to prove herself, Johnson continues touring despite her body telling her otherwise.
Maracle’s wonderfully nuanced performance makes clear the magnitude of Johnson’s accomplishments. In Maracle, we see a young woman who is both excited, but also terrified at the revolutionary path she has set herself on. From Maracle’s performance, the audience gains a sense that Johnson truly appreciated every moment of her fame, as maybe she thought it might disappear at any moment – fearing she might be a fad in the literary world.
Maracle’s performance also sees lots of sharp quips and asides that radiate confidence. Her stage presence is marvelously magnetic. Her performance is a true delight.
Over the course of the play, Maracle recites a selection of Johnson’s poetry, including one of her most well-known works The Song My Paddle Sings. Maracle performs Johnson’s poetry with tremendous grace and power. The emotion in her words during A Cry From An Indian Wife is volcanic. Her talent brings Johnson’s poetry to life, and will undoubtedly lead many in the audience to seek out more of the poet’s work.
Christie’s energetic direction sees this humorous, touching play move effortlessly. The director goes for simplicity here, following the adage of ‘less is more’. Johnson’s canoe is nothing more than a bench, and that’s all Maracle needs (besides her paddle) to transport us to the river.
Often the literary contributions by women are overlooked or obscured by those made by (white) men. And so, staging plays like Paddle Song is critically important to the task of exploring and establishing a well-represented canon of Canadian literature. (Which is why the Heritage Minutes were mentioned, as they shape and influence the public’s cultural knowledge bank).
Co-presented by One Yellow Rabbit and Lunch Box Theatre, Paddle Song is a beautiful production that audiences should make every effort to see at the 30th Annual High Performance Rodeo.
Paddle Song runs Jan 11 – 23 at Lunchbox Theatre , as part of the 2016 High Performance Rodeo. Paddle Song is a co-presentation by One Yellow Rabbit and Lunchbox Theatre.
For more information about the show, including ticket information, visit: https://www.hprodeo.ca/2016/paddle-song
For more information about Cheri Maracle, visit her website: http://www.cherimaracle.com/