Prepping for his latest suicide attempt, Cliff Cardinal places a bag over his head and assures his audience that there is a rational explanation for what they are about to see.
This rational explanation is motivated by North America’s carefully calculated, irrational response to First Nations oppression. Huff is anything but your typical coming-of-age story. Wind and his brothers face addiction and abuse in the wake of their mother’s death.
For 75 minutes, writer and performer Cardinal invites the audience to unpack the systemic inequalities at cultural, structural and institutional levels. The production skillfully exposes various social and historical scenarios that contribute to the intergenerational oppression through multidimensional characters.
The play poses a simple but resourceful setting and many props serve multiple functions, highlighting motifs. The boys, all played by Cardinal, are very limited by their surroundings, traveling to run-down spaces for sanctuary to engage in unsavoury pastimes. In one scene, the brothers huff gas in an abandoned motel by the highway. Hoping to illustrate the cyclical nature of violence, Huff blends the setting with many interesting props. Huff transforms simple props providing a platform for the plotline to become increasingly dark.
In one scene, at a school on the reserve, the children’s “thirst for knowledge” is illustrated by beer bottles. The audience goes from laughing at Cardif’s clever selection of beer to represent white privilege, to quickly quieting as the teacher creates an “us versus them” scenario, by telling the students that anything that they have to say is “irrelevant.”
Huff exposes the in between moments of marginalized characters and their coping strategies that put them in a complacent position. Cardinal embodies an aging kokum (grandmother) who fiercely protects her nosisims (grandsons). One of the most memorable scenes comes when the grandma reflects on her incapability to alter her family’s self-inflicted abusive tendencies and the double-bind situations for her daughter who lived through domestic abuse. Cardinal captures an old woman’s spirit breaking. This scene begs the question, what is the antidote?
Huff also does a great job at illustrating tangible coping tactics. These escapisms also support the theme of cyclical violence. After losing against his sons in a game of Sega Wind’s father becomes angered and takes off. The play does not even need to formally acknowledge drinking and driving as that scenario is merely a symptom of a larger problem.
Huff requires Cardinal to act out multiple characters and their responses in many high-energy, intense situations. He uses these auspicious moments to engage the audience. Despite serious content, Cardinal squeezes in a good amount of humour, juxtaposing dark and light comedy during the third party scenes.
This play is a must-see for October. It provides a complex look at the naturalization of poverty and oppression. Originally developed at Native Earth’s Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival, Huff is the recipient of the 2012 Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation.
Huff, directed by Karin Randoja and presented by Native Eath Performing Arts, will be playing at Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas E., Toronto, until Oct. 25. For more information visit www.nativeearth.ca/huff/.