You know that expression about shooting fish in a barrel? Reviewing The Only Good Indian is like trying to shoot a fish in the ocean from an airplane. At least in the performance I witnessed, The Only Good Indian is hard to get a bead on.
Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis, and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard created this solo show for Toronto company Pandemic Theatre, and they are three of the four actors who are performing it in rotation here at the rEvolver Festival. The fourth is local artist Adele Noronha.
Every actor who takes on The Only Good Indian draws on their personal history to create about sixty percent of the text. The forty percent that stays constant deals with multiple issues including occupation, colonization, indigeneity, and otherness. In the framing device, the actor/storyteller—Noronha the night I saw it—dons a suicide vest and tells the audience that she’s going to blow herself up in 30 minutes and take a bunch of us along with her.
Noronha struggled with the text. That’s not surprising—she’s also rehearsing two shows for Bard on the Beach right now—but I suspect the fact that she went off-script contributed to my disorientation.
More crucially, I struggled to find the motivation in Noronha’s personal history that might lead to her character’s desire to commit suicide and kill others. That’s probably a matter of focus.
Noronha shares some brutal experiences. She tells us that a man she trusted broke into her home and raped her. When she informed her brother about that rape, he said that he was surprised she hadn’t killed herself yet. That kind of violation could certainly lead to murderous fury. But this information is presented in a perfunctory fashion. The narrative elements aren’t developed and they’re not clearly linked to the impending explosion. Instead, they swim in a sea of information and ideas that mostly concern race and culture. Noronha talks about her mixed heritage, for instance, and about how portions of the Indian side of her family’s story have been obscured by social and political shifts. She talks about the waves of colonization in India. But, in the cultural side of the story, there’s no compelling focus.
For me at least—and I should acknowledge that I’m a white male settler—the dehumanization of sexual assault and the dehumanization of cultural erasure never find a coherent fit in Noronha’s version of The Only Good Indian. Noronha’s story leans (weakly) towards the former while the container favours the latter.
Despite my frustrations with The Only Good Indian, I must also say that the performance never bored me. Yes, Noronha struggled with her script, but she handled it like a pro: she was unflappable. And she’s a charismatic performer.
Also, the mist of ideas in the text provoked me to think about occupation in more nuanced ways, to consciously recognize the evils of colonialism, for instance, while acknowledging the urge to freedom that often propels human movement. As a refugee, my pal from Togo—a queer man escaping oppression—hopes to become an occupier.
THE ONLY GOOD INDIAN Co-created and performed by Jivesh Parasram, Tom Arthur Davis, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, and Adele Noronha. A Pandemic Theatre creation presented by the rEvolver Theatre Festival, with presenting partner Neworld Theatre. In the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, May 24. Continues until May 27.
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