Defying expectations with honesty

A conversation with Darla Contois

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Darla Contois’ passion for theatre was first sparked by a production of award-winning Métis playwright Ian Ross’ Baloney! when it visited her high school.

“It was in our school gym. It was a minimal set, minimal everything, and I was just so in love with it ’cause it looked so fun.”

Though an interest in theatre was galvanized early on for Contois, it was a slow start when it came to her exploring the artform for herself.

“I didn’t do productions as a kid. In high school, my teacher played favourites, and so there was like, five people who were in all of the productions and were always chosen first for everything. The reason why I started doing after-school (theatre) programs was to sort of spite her, because it was like, you’re not gonna stop me from doing theatre.”

The first production Contois was cast in was a bit part in Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing by Tomson Highway during her first year at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto.

“I learned later that it was because I was the only Native person that auditioned for the play, the only Native woman. And so what they did was they cast this white girl in the main part of the play, with me taking over in the last scene as the wife of one of the people in the play,” Contois says.

“It was because the director wanted a ‘Native feeling’ at the end of it. Because it’s a Native play written by a Native man for Native people, and it was really strange. The play was like, two hours long, and I was stuck waiting backstage for so long, just for that moment of glory on stage.”

Rather than performing in someone else’s production as an afterthought or a stereotype, Contois is creating her own work, pulling inspiration from memories and feelings she had as a child.

Third-year students at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre are required to take a solo playwriting class, which is intended to prepare students for their own career-starting, one-person shows. It was there that Contois conceived of the idea of White Man’s Indian.

The play tells the story of a young girl experiencing the city for the first time after moving off a reserve, and the difficulties of adjusting to a white man’s high school.

Contois explains the title: “It means you’re an Indigenous person who’s very assimilated, who’s very colonized, who basically does everything that the white man intended to when they arrived on this land. It’s not following your beliefs, it’s not fighting for your traditions, it’s being an assimilated person.”

“People go into the theatre really apprehensive. I can tell they're confused about the title, they’re very confused by the picture used in the poster ... Seeing them come out after, they’re always really blown away, and that’s really satisfying,” Contois says.

Sharing her experiences was important to Contois, because it was a narrative that she hadn’t previously seen in theatre: one of a young Indigenous woman existing in the world today, instead of the nostalgic or romanticized narratives she was used to seeing.

“It’s like, this is me and who I am today. I’m very confused and very lost, and it’s because of all the things that’ve happened in the past and the way that we’re portrayed in media. I don’t understand who I am or where I fit into all of this.”

Her hope for what audiences take away from White Man’s Indian is a better understanding of the nuances of Indigenous peoples’ experience, and the ways that colonization has impacted and informed the way they navigate their day-to-day lives.

“And not to believe the stereotypes that every single family is like, stuck in their ways, and that every single family is not trying to make a better life for themselves, because we’re all trying to do that. I hope they get out of it that we’re real people. We’re not a stereotype.”

She felt the best way to accomplish this was through a mandate of unfettered honesty. The no-bullshit manner under which Contois operates has in turn led to deeper self-discovery.

Part of that experience is coming to terms with how her life was affected by colonization.

As “an Indigenous person, there’s this moment in your life when you’re like, holy fuck. My life has been affected by colonization. I’ve had so much pain and so much trauma and so many of these things that I hadn’t identified before. I realized that there is a cause for all of those things. It shatters your view. It shatters your whole world because, well, there’s a reason why all of these things were bad. There’s a reason why I had this experience.

“Me, personally, I had a lot people in my life die at a really young age. And I just sort of expected that’s what happens to everybody, but then you grow up, and people still have their grandparents, people still have their aunts and their uncles. People didn’t have to deal with AIDS and diabetes and stuff like that. It taints your life after you realize that. You start to see things in a different way.”

Contois is currently working on producing a new work with Prairie Theatre Exchange titled Love. The piece is, simply, about just that.

“I just wanted to write about something joyful, something happy. And even though I don’t know how to do that yet, I'm pushing myself to remember that when I was a kid, everything was beautiful. When I was a kid, everybody was my friend. When I was a kid, my mom had to tell me not to talk to strangers. She had to tell me not to go and run off with random people. Everything was beautiful and filled with so much light.

“I’ve been trying so hard to just remember all of that light and all that beautiful I used to see. And I’m trying to write about that now. Because I don’t believe that it’s gone. I just believe that there’s this screen across my face that makes me look at things differently. And I miss that, I miss that little girl that I used to be. So that’s what I’m trying to write about.”

Darla Contois will speak at the West End Cultural Centre on Feb. 3 as part of the Uniter Speaker Series. Doors are at 1:30 p.m., and the event is at 2 p.m. This event is free, and all ages are welcome. The venue is physically accessible.

Published in Volume 73, Number 16 of The Uniter (January 31, 2019)

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