March 25, 2019

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Too close for comfort

Local playwright didn't have to look past his own backyard for inspiration

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/3/2016 (1111 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In his book of essays, We Are All Treaty People, Calgary political science professor Roger Epp wrote that the most meaningful work of reconciliation between white and indigenous people would not be in the corridors of power but “in small, face-to-face initiatives for which the imperative is greatest where communities exist in close proximity.”

Winnipeg playwright Steven Ratzlaff takes that concept and runs with it in Reservations, a pair of one-act plays premièring tonight at the Rachel Browne Theatre under the auspices of Theatre Projects Manitoba.

In the first play, Pete’s Reserve, an ailing Mennonite farmer (played by Ratzlaff) decides to give his land to a neighbouring First Nation, a decision that will have hard implications for his daughter.

In the second play, Standing Reserve, a white foster couple must work with a representative of a First Nations Child and Family Services agent to provide for the cultural needs of the children in their care.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/3/2016 (1111 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In his book of essays, We Are All Treaty People, Calgary political science professor Roger Epp wrote that the most meaningful work of reconciliation between white and indigenous people would not be in the corridors of power but "in small, face-to-face initiatives for which the imperative is greatest where communities exist in close proximity."

Winnipeg playwright Steven Ratzlaff takes that concept and runs with it in Reservations, a pair of one-act plays premièring tonight at the Rachel Browne Theatre under the auspices of Theatre Projects Manitoba.

In the first play, Pete’s Reserve, an ailing Mennonite farmer (played by Ratzlaff) decides to give his land to a neighbouring First Nation, a decision that will have hard implications for his daughter.

In the second play, Standing Reserve, a white foster couple must work with a representative of a First Nations Child and Family Services agent to provide for the cultural needs of the children in their care.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Emma Tibaldo, co-director of Reservations.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Emma Tibaldo, co-director of Reservations.

The inspiration for the plays, Ratzlaff says, comes from just living Winnipeg right now.

"It’s almost impossible to be a citizen of this city without being confronted with the issues relating to indigenous children in care and all the issues and the history that’s behind this moment," says Ratzlaff during a rehearsal break at the Rachel Browne Theatre. "Just being here and knowing people."

In writing Standing Reserve, Ratzlaff says he was also inspired by a Winnipeg Free Press article by the late Lindor Reynolds "about a dispute between a white foster family and a First Nations agency.

"I was struck by that," he says. "I started to think about that, because everyone involved is well-intentioned, but you end up at loggerheads, stuck. And as a playwright, I am interested in people who are stuck."

For Cree actress Tracey Nepinak, the dialogue that takes place on the stage serves as a catalyst for dialogue outside the theatre.

"I cried when I first read it," she says. "The issue of racism right now in our city is at a boiling point. It’s a seething thing — it’s happening and we all know it and we feel it, but nobody wants to talk about it.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>From right, Tracey Nepinak, Steven Ratzlaff and Sarah Constible in a scene from Ratzlaff's Reservations at Theatre Projects.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

From right, Tracey Nepinak, Steven Ratzlaff and Sarah Constible in a scene from Ratzlaff's Reservations at Theatre Projects.

"I love that this play gives people the opportunity to stand back and see themselves, or maybe identify with one of the characters and have one of the other characters shed some light on the other side."

"I don’t think any other theatre is addressing any of that right now," she says.

Lately, Nepinak has been going through a particularly regal period of her career, playing Queen Isabella in a production of Marlowe’s Edward II last fall, and Cleopatra in a Shakespeare in the Ruins production of Antony and Cleopatra last summer. In Reservations, she, Ratzlaff and Sarah Constible all do double-duty, playing different characters in each play. If being queenly can be demanding, doing two roles in one evening in Reservations is downright challenging.

"It’s a little exhausting," she says.

Behind the scenes, it took two directors to bring Ratzlaff’s work to the stage: Winnipeg First Nations playwright Ian Ross and Montreal-based directior Emma Tibaldo, the artistic director of Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal.

Tibaldo says doubling up on directors was unusual but necessary to the work.

"The play needed two points of view because there are two points of view in the play and they’re very specific and very clear from the perspective of the settler and the perspective of the indigenous characters," she says. "So it was important that both voices be present and we could discuss things on our own and come to an understanding of what the plays were trying to convey."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca@FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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