No straight answers, no straight faces. The Ojibway kid from Curve Lake reserve is definitely glib enough for the big city. Drew Hayden Taylor might have grown up around the rural aboriginal culture, but he’s made the transition to Toronto really well. And Venice and Hamburg and all over the States and this week he was in Prince George to see the PG Theatre Workshop production of his play Bootlegger Blues.
“There’s a huge squirm factor when I watch,” he says. “I squirm, I hide, it freaks me out constantly. It’s a playwright thing. It makes me wonder every time why am I in this business?’ oh yeah, the playwright groupies throwing their bras.”
See. Even a basic answer has trace-elements of humour. If he wasn’t lacing every statement with sly comments he was telling a joke he’d heard. Or just made up. In all seriousness he reports that the National Film Board is interested in his documentary proposal on aboriginal erotica (which he pitched at them as a joke, but they went for it). From there he veered off into speculation that edible underwear in northern Canada must be made out of moose jerky.
Drew has written 11 books in his thirty-something life. Many of them are plays, like the highly acclaimed Bootlegger Blues and its sequel Baby Blues. There are two more installments on the way. His plays have been produced 55 times and he has seen 45 of those even the ones in other languages on other continents. (He once whirlwinded from Winnipeg to Toronto to Venice to Tulsa in less than a week.) He has also published books of essays. Omnipresent are the native issues he is a commentator on.
Native ambassador is a title he didn’t look for, but it found him anyway. He just completed a National Film Board documentary entitled Redskins, Tricksters and Puppy Stew exploring the mechanics of native humour. For someone without a post-secondary education (“I am a member of the gainfully uneducated!”) he is highly regarded as an aboriginal analyst capable of subtle dissemination even between native writing styles such as his own and fellow playwright Tomson Highway’s.
“Tomson I’d call an artistic aboriginal writer. There are always four or five layers of meaning in his writing. I am an old-fashioned storyteller. My goal is to tell a story in an aboriginal way that celebrates the aboriginal sense of humour. The majority of aboriginal figures are not tragic, so the majority of what I do is comedic. I refuse to be oppressed, suppressed and depressed.”
So what makes aboriginal literature as opposed to Euro-Canadian literature?
“Two characteristics. most Euro/Western drama is based on a central protagonist who has a quest to accomplish through a series of obstacles. In aboriginal drama there are several characters all equally important to the telling of the story It’s the difference between The Three Stooges and All In the Family. Both are funny, but the source material is different.”
For all his troubles Drew Hayden Taylor has quietly inched toward national icon status. He knew he was getting successful when his play Alter-natives was done at the prestigious Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver and someone calling it “racist towards white people” called in a bomb threat. The bomb squad had to secure the building and everything.
He hasn’t made the transition to stage yet (“The only acting I’ve ever done is in singles bars.”) but he is a lecturer. UNBC hosted him for an address this past Monday. The audience bloodlines were decidedly mixed. It’s another sign he has made it as a writer. His topics may be native-content but they have found a universal audience.