Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Daniel David Moses, a Canadian poet and playwright and descendent of the Delaware and Tuscarora nations, wrote Almighty Voice and His Wife in 1992. Its first act is based on the legend of Almighty Voice, a tale well known among Native communities. While my summary below contains plot spoilers for the uninitiated, keep in mind that Native audiences will be well aware of how it ends, just as a white audience will know how a play about the life of Abraham Lincoln ends. The impact of theater in such a case does not stem from the surprises in its plot, but the way in which its dramatization prompts us to feel and think in new ways, and to dig deeper into ourselves or into the history on which our current world is built.
Almighty Voice is a young man of the Cree nation who kills a cow in order to provide meat for a feast to celebrate his marriage to a young woman known as White Girl. The reason for killing a cow was that the white men had killed off all the buffalo, but the cow was someone's property, not a free creature roaming the prairie. For this, Almighty Voice is arrested. He escapes to his reserve, but kills a deputy attempting to recapture him. Thus, Almighty Voice becomes the object of a major manhunt by the Canadian Mounted Police lasting some eighteen months. In the end, Almighty Voice and his two companions are killed. The story is told in short scenes introduced with titles projected on the side of a teepee, which realistically dramatize the courtship between Almighty Voice and White Girl, their wedding night, White Girl's wish to stay with her husband while he is on the run, the birth of a son to them, and Almighty Voice's last moments on earth.
Act two of Almighty Voice and His Wife is a fantasy, from beginning to end, set in the afterlife in which Almighty Voice arrives. Both he and his host are in white face, and his host is wearing the garb of a Mountie, somehow exaggerated in appearance to seem clown-like. The act takes on the form of a minstrel show, with the host identifying herself as the Interlocutor, and refers to Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, stock minstrel characters. Through this device, the ghost of Almighty voice is subject to all manner of negative images of and beliefs about Native people. He tries mightily to resist, but is sucked in, and even becomes an enthusiastic participant. The act is performed as slapstick riddled with wordplay, but the humor is weighed down with the tragedy of Almighty Voice, first losing his life, then losing his identity in his afterlife. The end, however, salvages his self-respect with a poignant, surprising twistno spoiler this time.
Moses is an estimable writer. For act one, he has composed simple, direct dialogue. Almighty Voice and White Girl do not have, nor seem to need, the elaborate vocabulary of the white people who have usurped their land. Everything they do not like is said to be "stupid." Every feeling they don't understand is said to be "crazy." Their words and actions alike are easy to follow, always directly hitting the point. One would suspect this is Moses' own style of writing, but in act two he lets loose a barrage of banter, show-biz ballyhoo, and intricately woven insults, catching the audience like a sucker-punch.
Ajuawak Kapashesit gave a tremendous performance as Almighty Voice, playful and seductive in his first approaches to White Girl. As he assumed the responsibilities of a husband, strength and dignity seemed to spring from within him, like an inner fire waiting to find its breath. In his vaudeville-like afterlife, Kapashesit in rapid succession conveyed anger, confusion, assent, and a sliver of hope. He performed a traditional Native dance with such grace and concentration that it became surprisingly moving. His solid physical presence and strikingly handsome features drew the audience to him. Marisa Carr was wonderful as the very young White Girl (she claims to be thirteen when Almighty Voice first asks to kiss her), who learns to become a wife and a mother, forced to bear fear and grief that are not a natural part of those life-roles. In act two, she was sassy and animated as the Interlocutor of Almighty Voice's after life, goading him on, always two steps ahead of him with a verbal snare.
Director Katherine Pardue steered the two acts with a vision of how they relate, one to the other, that led to a whole greater than the sum of its two parts. There was good use of music before the play startedhard-driving themes from western movies, and then a transition to native music as the play evolved. Maxwell Collyard's projections illustrated the open prairies of the Cree, unencumbered by boundaries, with slashes, like lightning bolts that seemed to tear the land asunder. Marisa Carr, in addition to acting, designed the apt costumes, with a witty take on the Mountie cum ringmaster ensemble she wore in the second act.
I am sorry that Turtle Theater Collective was only able to offer this production of Almighty Voice and His Wife for one weekend. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity for a return engagement. It is a well written, well-constructed play, and this newly formed company gave it a polished production that deserved to be seen, and that left its audience with ample food for further thought. In the meanwhile, Turtle Theater Collective has a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town on deck, for some time in July or August, in which the central Webb and Gibbs families, and the role of the Stage Manager, will all be cast with Native actors, staging this familiar story through a very different lens. Keep on the lookout for that one, and for other future work by this welcome addition to the Twin Cities' theater landscape.
Almighty Voice and His Wife, a Turtle Theater Collective production, played March 8, 2018 - March 11, 2018, as part of the Art Share series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. For information on Art Share, visit southerntheater.org. For information on Turtle Theater Collective, visit www.facebook.com/pg/TurtleTheaterCollective.
Writer: Daniel David Moses; Director: Katherine Pardue; Costume Design: Marisa Carr; Sound Design: Kalen Keir; Light Design: Katie Deutsch; Projection Design: Maxwell Collyard; Design Collaborator: John Bueche; Stage Manager: Sequoia Hauck.
Cast: Marisa Carr (White Girl), Ajuawak Kapashesit (Almighty Voice).