COMIC HEROES OR 'RED NIGGERS'?
Never before has Canadian radio seen anything quite like
the biting satire of the Dead Dog Café, one show that's not afraid
to train its sights on native shortcomings. Listeners eat it up
but at least one cast member wonders whether all those fans
are laughing with aboriginal people -- or at them
By JOHN STACKHOUSE
Friday, November 9, 2001 Print Edition, Page A18
The setting: A blue-ribbon theatre in a royalist town.
More precisely, the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour wants to know if Victoria, the first Queen of Canada, whose imperial rule gave this city its name, had an affair with George Washington. Could that somehow make Canada illegitimate?
Never mind the historical impossibility. (She was born 20 years after he died.) In tonight's Victoria Day special, Jasper Friendly Bear -- the show's philosophic freeloader -- believes that the Great White Mother ran around the Oval Office with the Great White Father.
"There was no Oval Office back then!" exclaims Tom King, the celebrated native author who is Dead Dog's creator and writer as well as one of its stars. "There wasn't even a White House!"
Gracie Heavy Hand, the café's owner and font of ironic native wisdom, gasps in disbelief. "If there was no Oval Office," she asks, "where did the presidents have their affairs?"
Before King can summon a rational response, Jasper trumps him with a piece of literal logic. He says a relative travelling in the States saw several signs proclaiming, "George Washington slept here" -- obviously where the Great White Father and Great White Mother consummated their conquest of North America.
As the WASP audience settles into a comfortable rhythm of guffaws and applause, the radio performance proceeds with an evening of assaults on Supreme Court decisions, colonial rule, bureaucratic incompetence, native corruption and bingo. A lot of bingo. After every scene, numbers are called for people in the sold-out crowd, who are blissfully unaware that everyone has been given identical cards.
For six years, Dead Dog Café has lampooned Canada's troubled state of aboriginal affairs in a manner some Canadians consider unfit for public airwaves. Perhaps it's because the writer and stars are native, or because their work exposes some fundamental truths of our two warring societies. Or perhaps because it can make a white audience in Regina stand in applause, even as they laugh at themselves.
"This show has made a cultural impact on a huge number of people," says Kathleen Flaherty, its producer. "I think people in Canada didn't know Indians were funny. I really mean that. I didn't know that."
The radio program is about much more than native satire, as funny as it can be. In a nation that considers comedy a national trait, the Dead Dog Café has used humour to force two societies to come to grips with how they see each other, and themselves.
But it also has forced its native cast, and their non-native producer, to better understand the consequences of their jokes. For King, the show is a political tool. For Edna Rain, who plays Gracie, it is entertainment. For Flaherty, it is, like Jewish humour, an expression of history's downtrodden.
But for Floyd Favel Starr, the Saskatchewan actor who plays Jasper Friendly Bear, it also may be something quite wrong. After watching another predominantly white crowd laugh at natives making fun of natives, he has to wonder whether his career's greatest public success is nothing more than what he calls "red niggers in red face."
"There's an artistic apartheid in this country," Starr says, suggesting that it would be better if a non-native played Jasper Friendly Bear and he played, say, Macbeth.
"It's not just non-aboriginals pushing natives into this situation. Natives contribute 50 per cent of their own ghettoization."
The program that
The humour is rooted in King's troubled upbringing in northern California, where his Cherokee father abandoned his Greek mother when he and his only sibling, a younger brother, were just kids. Growing up poor in Roseville, a railway town near Sacramento, King knew little of his native heritage. At high school, he was nicknamed "Chink" because of his features.
The family had no TV, so he and his brother became hooked on radio, and acted out episodes of The Green Hornet, The Shadow and The Lone Ranger, although his favourite was Who's on First.
The effect can be heard in Dead Dog Café,with its reliance on a traditional American style of humour -- setup, setup, punchline. But King also casts a sharp, satirical eye for social and political contradictions, which he developed as a newcomer to the often dreary and apologetic landscape of Canadian native politics.
When he came of age in the 1960s and a knee injury kept him out of Vietnam, King immersed himself in the militant American Indian movement of the day. Finally, disenchanted with U.S. apathy toward native issues -- overshadowed as they were by the black race wars of the day -- he earned a doctorate in literature from the University of Utah, and moved to Alberta in 1980 to teach at the University of Lethbridge.
Before launching Dead Dog,he also emerged as an important writer. His first novel, 1990's Medicine River,won him a keen following, which included Flaherty.
She had grown up on the Prairies, the daughter of a railway official, and was fascinated with all things native. As a child, living in small towns, she had been told to be cautious around Indians, so much so that once, when she found herself alone in a railway station waiting room with a native family, she was terrified.
As an adult she came to know and respect natives, and understand the reasons for her divided society. In 1994, when she returned from a decade in Toronto to develop radio series in her home province of Alberta, one of her first calls was to King.
He told her he had been thirsting from childhood to produce a native take on the old George Burns and Gracie Allen shows, something featuring verbal repartée but very political too. The setting he had in mind was one he had concocted for a piece of fiction, a place called the Dead Dog Café where cunning Alberta natives fed bits of black lab to unsuspecting tourists.
He saw the scene as a sort of metaphor for the tricks the Canadian government has played on natives. "Ottawa has no interest in maintaining Indian people as a culture," he says in a serious moment. "They're interested in Indians as an artifact."
What King calls "socially relevant" humour became his weapon in a war on the government of his adoptive country. From California, he had brought an American sense of sarcasm, as well as the timing of radio humour. Moreover, he had an outsider's eye for ironic truths, however painful.
In one regular sketch, his characters are the Band Councillor, Ottawa Bob and the band's administrative assistant Wilma Trueblue -- caricatures of countless reserves, where everything seems to revolve around a bumbling bureaucrat, duplicitous local politicians and an administrator (usually a woman) who somehow keeps the place going.
At first, CBC management found the scripts too slow, and in 1995 relegated six episodes to a regional program. Only when it drew a flood of mail did the show go national. Satirical songwriter Nancy White, artist Robert Bateman and aboriginal leader Ovide Mercredi joined a long list of fans.
And then something remarkable, at least in Canadian broadcasting, happened. The racier the humour got, the more fan mail came in, from across Canada and around the world. An informal fan club was started in Berlin. And the cautious CBC management in Toronto grew nervous.
Flaherty admits that her largely left-of-centre bosses always had a soft spot for King's anti-corporate humour, which blends native concerns with socialist leanings. Taking on white society has long been another CBC hallmark. But when the show started to ridicule native foibles, nerves became frayed.
Weekly features soon included native trinkets, such as the carving of a drunk Indian around a totem pole and an Indian-head Pez dispenser. In the wake of scandals about government-funded cruises taken by native leaders, another regular spot was launched to teach listeners conversational Cree phrases for such things as, "Is there a charge for the deck chair?" and "How long will we be in port?"
And then there were the Top 10 Reasons Why It is Good to Have Indians in Canada, posted on the program's Web site. No. 4: cheap cigarettes.
"If this is written by whites," one letter writer said, "it's offensive. If it's written by natives, it's funny as hell."
The humour, of course, lampoons Canada's treatment of aboriginal peoples. King believes it also offers the mass audience a window on aboriginal culture, while "native people get to have a bit of a laugh at white people."
After 85 shows, despite the high ratings, the grind has taken its toll on King so the program is no longer a regular on CBC Radio and now appears only for special performances such as the Victoria Day special in Regina.
But King also is working on bringing an animated version of Dead Dog to television -- think The Simpsons meets The Rez. Canadians need the accessible view of aboriginal issues that animated TV would provide, he says. And natives need the laughs.
"I think it's survival strategy," he says while walking to dinner after a rehearsal for the Regina show.
"If life is so bad, you either kill yourself or you laugh. Colonized people can see humour as a strength, as a medicine."
But there remain forbidden zones, limits of Canadian restraint. King knows his humour can jab, but it had better not punch. Call Canadians naive. Don't call them racist.
That frustrates someone who believes humour must be political -- and worries his collaborators, who fear their art is the new vaudeville.
"We're a circus that comes to town and sets up next to the white community," King says. "As long as you don't let the lions and tigers out of the cage, it's okay."
Now 58, he is a bundle of contradictions, which he concedes while sauntering into a steak house, dressed in slacks and a floral golf shirt. At 6 feet 6 and 240 pounds, he is the biggest man in the restaurant, looking more like a Saskatchewan Roughriders linebacker than a noted author.
He is also equal parts first class and first nations. He insists on flying business class because of his size, although indulgence is not something he avoids anyway. He can rattle off the names of Toronto steak houses and golf courses he frequents with his friend, native actor Graham Greene. He also has a big house in Guelph, Ont., where his second wife teaches at the university, as well as two cars, three cats and vacations in Costa Rica.
"I'll be honest with you. I've got no interest in being poor," he says.
Just the same, King has a passionate socialist streak. He wants his humour to be about poverty as much as discrimination. He targets big corporations whenever he can. Air Canada, Nortel, Monsanto -- they will all make an appearance in the Regina show, and not as models of a good society.
To King, big corporations should be thrown on the same scrap heap as Canada's aboriginal policy because they both perpetuate class. When he moved to Canada, he was offended by Ottawa's apparent unwillingness to grant Indians more land -- the core to all native identity, he believes. But he also grew disturbed in the 1980s and 1990s as he watched the growing gap between North America's rich and poor, between its big companies and small communities and especially between it governments and first nations.
The gap can be seen right outside the wood-panelled steak house, where downtown Regina is anything but funny when it comes to aboriginal people. In the early evening, the long shadows of spring race down deserted streets and pedestrian malls, their only company being wayward natives.
With crime gangs now operating from reserves around the city, Regina is already referred to as Canada's car-theft capital. Aside from a casino, there are few economic opportunities for the thousands of natives coming off rural reserves.
While King dines
He visits the reserve again the next morning, as part of a spiritual exercise he tries to follow every day. Like King, Starr has his contradictions.
At 36, he looks urban bohemian, dressed in jeans and a peach-coloured shirt, with narrow eyeglasses and a brush cut. But when he reaches the reserve, he strips to his underwear and slips into a tent, packed with 20 or so Piapot elders and a group of young non-native offenders brought from Regina as part of a rehabilitation program.
He presents an elder with a traditional offering of tobacco and cloth. He bought the fabric at Wal-Mart, the epitome of the corporate America that King so dislikes. The DuMauriers came from a gas station en route to the reserve.
For Starr, breathing the steamy, sweet air coming off the red-hot rocks marks a return to his roots. Born and raised on the Poundmaker reserve outside North Battleford, he remains true to an upbringing that has left him with a view of humour very different from that of California-born King.
In the 1970s, when Poundmaker had yet to get running water, let alone television, Starr's primary source of childhood entertainment was his mother's stories and his close-knit family's lively discussions in Cree, a language he compares to an art form. By its nature, Cree lends itself to puns and wordplay, Starr says, which may be why so many people on his reserve considered themselves to be wits.
They had to be. Laughter "is the great leveller" in native society, he says. "They also say it keeps you grounded. It keeps you focused, who your friends are. It makes your spirit happy. Happiness is what we strive for, to make people happy."
When he left the reserve for high school in North Battleford, he felt alienated, as did most Indian teens (rather than football, they were encouraged to play soccer with the immigrant kids). Dropping out in Grade 12, he moved to Saskatoon, and stumbled across a native theatre group led by director Ruth Smiley, who now runs Regina's Globe Theatre. He wanted to be a writer, and was hooked.
Then, with funds from his band and the federal government, he secured a spot in a theatre program for aboriginal people in Denmark, where he studied for two years before moving to Italy to study theatre for three more years. He thought of never coming back to "the brutalizing racism, to always feeling under attack, the constant harassment. I didn't want to feel afraid. I felt safer in Europe in the 1980s than here in Saskatchewan."
When he did move back to be near his family, he discovered a more cynical form of segregation: the view in many theatre circles that only natives should play natives. "If you want to be a native actor, you have to play the Indian warrior or the wise man," he found. He disagreed, and still does. "A native is a role like any role. Theatre has to be universal."
For Governor of the Dew,a play he recently wrote and directed, he cast non-natives in native roles, to show that theatre can be a bridge. But he knows his view is not widely shared, especially among natives.
After the sweat, Starr heads back to Regina in his Ford Contour, listening to a hard-rock music station along the way. AC/DC seems to be a local favourite. He has to adjust his mind to the urban world as the Trans-Canada Highway is transformed into an alleyway of mass consumption, followed by the harsher reality of the native presence downtown.
As Starr sees listless aboriginal people wandering the streets, he wonders if Dead Dog'srace humour should be more confrontational, like that of many black U.S. comedians. But he knows that would not sit well with white Canadians, at least not the crowd gathering at the Globe Theatre. "They want the noble, tragic, spiritual Indian," he says, "or else they want vaudeville."
On stage, Starr could carry the entire audience for the hour-long performance. His voice is clear, his language crisp. Even though this is for radio, his rich eyes also seem to captivate the crowd as he holds a section in his gaze and then looks on to the next.
Flaherty is among those enraptured whenever Starr speaks. But her nerves tighten a notch whenever the script turns to Gracie Heavy Hand -- in rehearsals, Edna Rain has stumbled repeatedly on the word "acrimonious."
The verbal fumbles seem to irritate King, but Flaherty decides not to worry. Back at the CBC, she says, she would have been all over a performer for messing up a line. She had to be as tough as the guys. But here, a white person barking commands to a native would give the wrong impression, she says.
Flaherty also knows that Rain, although she has played Gracie from the start, is the show's one true outsider, and perhaps its truest aboriginal person in terms of her life's experience.
Rain is certainly the only one on stage who looks her part, not just because of her long face and nose, framed by sagging ears and cheeks, and a ponytail crawling down her back. She wears a leather jacket embalzoned with "Gathering of Nations Powwow" -- a trophy from one of her many tours as a championship powwow dancer.
But she has an obvious discomfort on stage. Despite six years with Dead Dog,she admits to not being at home here. King and Starr lap up the crowd's responses, but she maintains a nervous stance, never looking up from the script.
While the others eat steak or visit a sweat lodge, she prefers to sit in her hotel room and watch TV with a couple of grandchildren who have come with her from her home in Edmonton. For her, almost any time off stage is family time.
A divorced mother of six, grandmother of 13 and great-grandmother of six, Rain came to acting from decades of abuse. When she took it up at 55, she had just buried a daughter, who had died of a drug overdose and left behind three orphaned children for Rain to raise. Two years before that, she had lost a son to a brain tumour.
Rain grew up poor in rural Alberta during what she calls "the hungry Forties." Her family could not afford to send her to school until she was 9. Her mother died when she was 12. Her father disappeared. Her older brother became her guardian and refused to allow the local teacher, a non-native, to adopt her. She has yet to forgive him because she spent her teen years with just two sets of clothing, and a dream to escape her reserve.
She would not start to realize the dream until she was 32, when she quit her job in the band office and enrolled in a four-year administrative program with the Alberta Vocational College. "I was tired of being poor," she says. "I was tired of not being able to give for my children, but what motivated me most was I wanted to be someone."
She started the program with seven others from her band. She was the only one to finish.
It would be another two decades, though, before she took a son's advice and signed up for acting lessons, after she had left her husband and moved to Edmonton. The 1990s were a good time for natives playing natives, not just on Dead Dog Café. A few summers ago, she was flown to Italy for a bit part in a film directed by "a big bearded man." She still does not recognize Francis Ford Coppola by name.
If Rain is the most humble of performers, she is also the show's deepest root in the soil of native culture. On weekends, she returns to her reserve near Duffield, west of Edmonton, to skin, smoke and tan animal hides, and chop wood, which she does for physical and spiritual relief. She once showed up for rehearsal with a dead moose in her trunk.
She also may hold the most typically native view of the show, a kind of equanimity that transcends the cheaply polarized views that tend to dominate native and non-native politics. "At first, I thought I was ridiculing my own people, but then I realized what we were saying was true," she says during a break. She laughs at a reference in the script to Indian lawns being crowded with old cars. "It's true."
Since joining the cast, she has come to view her work as "educational humour" that should encourage both native and non-native society to change. She says theatre is not about preaching one's views; it's about seeking truths in many different realities.
"We have to live in both worlds," she says. "We can't isolate ourselves the way we did years ago. We can't cry about what happened years ago. It's time for the young people to grow up and change things."
In a way, that's what
During the taping, Rain sails through her "acrimonious" line, and at the end of the show there is an immediate standing ovation for the cast. When she nods in thanks, the cheers grow louder.
And then the three performers leave the way they arrived -- in different directions. King, the celebrity author and creator, wades through the crowded lobby, cheerfully accepting verbal bouquets while autographing programs and copies of his books. Tonight, he did not let the lions and tigers out of the cage.
Starr, the reserve-bred philosopher, retreats to the Green Room, where he will sit for a while with a Piapot First Nation drum group that performed in the show. Rather than mill about with the audience, he says, he is more comfortable in private with his young "homies."
Eventually, he wades into the lobby, but knows it is a mistake. The urban crowd and its adulation unnerve him. Strangers, just because they liked his work, feel they can approach him. One white man pats him on the shoulder. Another taps Starr's bum with his hat and says, "Great show."
"They treat me like I'm their best friend," Starr says later. It only adds to his concern that he has appeared in a red man's "minstrel show."
Starr does not dislike white people, or the mainstream society around him. Since the performance, he has moved to Regina to work with a modern dance company that performs at the Globe Theatre.
His bigger concern is that shows like the one tonight may be segregating Canada's races rather than bringing them together. He fears that the white crowd that cheered him was cheering not an actor but a native actor.
At the far end of the lobby, Rain alone seems to have removed herself from the stage. She pushes past her fans as if frantically searching for a fire exit, but then finally spots her grandchildren and smiles for the first time in hours. She hugs them and sits down on a padded bench. At last, half a dozen white women who have been trailing the small Cree actress get a chance to ask for her autograph.
Rain is flabbergasted. She once dreamed of being adopted by a white woman because she thought that would be a ticket out of hardship. And now, half a century later, she is a heroine to the other society.
"I'm no more important than you," she tells one woman. "I'm just Edna."
As the evening sky darkens, Flaherty mills about the Globe lobby, looking very much a part of the crowd. When she spots her three stars, each holding court with a clutch of fans, she heaves a sigh of relief. She has a deadline to meet, and budget to address, but she believes the show will help aboriginal and non-aboriginal people see each other, and themselves, differently.
For a short while at least, she and the others can afford to celebrate. In the morning, they will scatter -- Flaherty to Vancouver, where she now lives with a Cree actor; King to his suburban comforts, writing and a growing passion for photography; Starr to his family's reserve and more plays he is writing; Rain to her crowded home of orphans and relatives in Edmonton.
They will pursue very different avenues of theatre, with different views of art and race. But at least tonight they know they were able to make two worlds a stage.