White Noise is just another pop culture, truth-and-reconciliation comedy: same old, same old … I’m kidding! How many of those have you seen? Taran Kootenhayoo’s White Noise is completely frickin’ original. It has a vision. And it comes with the slap of urgency.
When Microsoft buys an app from an Indigenous teenager named Windwalker — for a breathtaking amount of money — he decides to move with his mom and dad from their community near Edmonton to West Point Grey. (The indoor pool was a big selling point.) Jessika, the teenage daughter of the white settler family next door, is just 10K short of her goal of 100,000 Instagram followers. So we view this story largely through the lens of online culture.
When Jessika’s parents invite Windwalker and his family over for dinner, Indigenous realities bump up against settler assumptions — and the windstorm whipping up outside gets ever more furious.
Anxious about her new surroundings, Windwalker’s mom Tse’kwi is reading a book called How To Deal with White People. Every chapter begins, “Don’t tell them anything.” Before the new family’s Indigeneity is established, Jessika’s mom Ashley grills Jessika about their race. “Are they Black?” she asks and practically swoons. Windwalker’s dad Deneyu talks a good line about hunting — until the possibility of actually hunting comes up.
Director Renae Morriseau has cast this premiere production flawlessly. To me — and yes, I’m still a white settler — the white female characters are the most interesting because they’re the most complicated.
Ashley is gluttonously appropriating — and sincerely well intentioned: when we first meet her, she’s smudging all over the place because she’s so afraid of her own anger. And, in the script’s juiciest ethical compromise, Jessika, who’s studying truth and reconciliation at school and who has some genuine understanding of the subject, decides to go live on Insta with the dinner party — without telling Windwalker and his family, because she knows her Instagram following will soar.
I’ve always been a big fan of actor Anita Wittenberg, but I’ve never seen her do anything like this: her Ashley is a heartbreaking clown. Wittenberg’s timing and inventiveness are impeccable. And Anais West’s Jessika is a demon. The look Jessika gives Ashley when she almost gives away her Instagram scheme would freeze fire mid-flicker. Yet there’s integrity to Jessika. And West’s resonant voice is a force of nature.
Braiden Houle does exactly what he needs to do as Windwalker: he keeps the character’s emotional truth and comic timing clicking, but, as written, Windwalker doesn’t have as much spin as Jessika does.
Deneyu is a standard-issue bumbling dad — and Sam Bob is more than up to the job, playing his physical size against the character’s little-boy innocence.
That leaves Jason and Tse’kwi, the most emblematic of the script’s characters. It takes too long for the conflict between these two to emerge but, when the shit finally hits the fan, we understand that he’s the voice of liberal racism and she’s the spokesperson for reasoned Indigenous fury. Mike Wasko and Columpa Bobb pour emotional authenticity into these somewhat stock figures. Bobb’s Tse’Kwi is always grounded, and, as an actor, Wasko manages to survive the script’s most problematic developments. The text barely prepares us for Jason’s sudden turn into overt racism and, as written, the resolution of Jason’s conflict with Tse’kwi is even more arbitrary, but Wasko made me believe that his character was feeling it.
So the script has structural issues, but it’s beautifully performed and red hot in its timeliness. The night I attended, the audience was howling in recognition and appreciation.
And the show also looks fantastic. Lauchlin Johnston’s set looks like the framework for a chunk of a geodesic dome, a gridwork of triangles with coloured lights that flash on at the intersections, like synapses firing in a brain. These lights blaze every time we enter Windwalker and Jessica’s world of apps and social media. And there are projection surfaces built into the set, so we also get overlays of both natural and unnatural images: a Pokémon buffalo, an eagle perched regally in a tree.
There’s a vision here, as I said. Originality. There’s also tragedy: playwright Taran Kootenhayoo died on December 31, 2020. He had a lot more to write.
There is some solace, though: this script is bound to go on to other productions.
WHITE NOISE By Taran Kootenhayoo. Directed by Renae Morriseau. A Firehall Arts Centre and Savage Society production at the Firehall Arts Centure on Friday, April 22. Continues until May 1. Tickets
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