I Call myself Princess is an ambitious new play by Jani Lauzon that tackles “half a thousand years” of the history of the indigenous people of North America and their white conquerors. The springboard for the play is the opera Shanewis (The Robin Woman) by composer Charles Wakefield Cadman and librettist Nelle Eberhart based partly on the life of Creek/Cherokee mezzo soprano Tsianina Redfeather.
Shanewis was produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1918 and was seen again in Hollywood in 1926. It disappeared almost completely from the repertoire after that but it serves Lauzon as an excellent metaphor for the fate of indigenous culture in North America.
The cast of I Call myself Princes. Photo: Dahlia Katz
Tsianina was American but Lauzon adds a Canadian framework to bring the themes of the play to the present.
William Morin (Aaron Wells), a Metis from Winnipeg is granted a scholarship to study music in Toronto. He comes across Shanewis and the story of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman). We are taken back to the beginning of the twentieth century and meet Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and librettist Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). William has a black friend called Alex (Howard Davis who also plays the baritone Clyde in the play).
Whether we are in the early twentieth or in the 21st century, Tsianina is almost always present until she and William start interacting across time in the past/present. Cadman and Eberhart are interested in “Indianist” music and they borrow native songs indiscriminately. Tsianina owes her success to a white benefactress and sings “You Must Thank my Benefactress” from Shanewis. She is an American to the extent that she served as a volunteer with the U.S. forces in Europe during World War I. But she is very much an indigenous woman ahead of her time who wants to preserve indigenous culture and change the Americans’ view of Indians (that’s what they were called then and for a long time after that).
William is a modern firebrand who looks back at half a thousand years of defeat, marginalization and destruction of indigenous culture and people. He does not go as far as pointing out that the American treatment of Indians was nothing less than a genocide and that the Canadian experience appeared more benign until the history of the residential schools was finally exposed in all its cruelty and genocidal intent.
The benign but realistic approach of Tsianina contrasts with the anger of William and in the end we can glean perhaps a wise resolution.
I Call myself Princess is described as a play with opera and we hear about a dozen pieces from Shanewis sung by the cast especially by Marion Newman. She describes herself as Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish and, like Tsianina, is an ardent supporter of indigenous culture.
Ch’ng Lancaster as Nelle Eberhart, Marion Newman as Tsianina Redfeather. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Wells comes from Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tsmpsian Nations of British Columbia and he sings a number of pieces.
The set by Christine Urquhart is minimalist consisting of a piano which accompanies the singers and a few pieces of furniture as necessary.
Director Marjorie Chan has to direct a play on grand themes as well as an opera to some extent. She has her hands full and does a good job.
Lauzon tackles the story of the indigenous people of North America with acuity and sensitivity. It is a story that has been at best mostly ignored and at worst grotesquely misrepresented. There are vocal limitations and the play gets occasionally preachy and even creaky but that does not detract from its value as a history that needs to be examined and told many times in the long process of changing the wrongful images into reality and giving us a complete and fair image of indigenous people.
I Call myself Princess is produced by Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre Productions in association with Native Earth Performing Arts.
I Call myself Princess by Jani Lauzon opened on September 13, 2018 and continues at Aki Studio, Native Earth Performing Arts, 585 Dundas St. East, Toronto, Ont.