I Call myself Princess is a new “play with opera music” written by Métis playwright and actor Jani Lauzon which will première at the Aki Studio in Toronto in September in a production directed by Marjorie Chan. I heard about this project a while ago from Marion Newman who will headline the new production and was intrigued. I knew it was going to be about American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman and his Creek/Cherokee collaborator Tsianina Redfeather. I knew they did a touring show including Cadman’s song cycle From Wigwam to Tepee and that’s about it. It sounded like the worst kind of late Victorian cultural appropriation and “Redsploitation” so why would serious and intelligent Indigenous artists like Lauzon and Newman be interested? Today I spoke with Jani in an attempt to find out.
A number of themes emerged. The first and, I think for Jani, the starting point was the ubiquity of Indigenous performers in the arts in North America, especially the West, in the early 20th century. They were orchestral musicians and singers and actors on stage and screen. Directors even. Jani ran into this whole researching a show called The Only Good Indian which was produced by Turtle Gals and ran at the Tarragon extra space. At first she was surprised by what she found and then she was mad with herself for being surprised! Researching one of these artists; Tsianina Redfeather, led her to the second theme we explored.
At the beginning of the 20th century there was a movement in the US to create an “American music” separate from the European classical tradition; incorporating Indigenous and Negro (OK I know that word offends some people but it seems appropriate here) musical traditions. I guess parallels with what people like Bartók and Dvořák were doing in Europe is not too far fetched. Interestingly, although the composers involved were largely American some of the ethnographic material they used was collected in Canada. Cadman, for instance, although he used primarily American ethnologists, also used many pieces by a Canadian Ethnologist named Fredrick Burton who specialized in collecting songs from the Ojibwe. To what extent the resulting music influenced a musical scene in Canada that largely looked to the UK for leadership and personnel is one that might be a fruitful line of research.(1)
There are all kinds of ideological questions about race, national identity and cultural appropriation buried here that certainly cry out to be explored. What isn’t of doubt is that this style of music, and Cadman’s in particular, had its day in the limelight. His opera Shanewis: The Robin Woman, inspired by Redfeather, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to replace the then unacceptable German works previously programmed, opened on March 23rd 1918 and got another run the following year. Redfeather declined the title role and it was sung by an all white cast, though Redfeather would sing when it moved to Chicago and ultimately, also, at the Hollywood Bowl where it was staged as a grand spectacle including 100 Hopi riders careering around the set! Interestingly Cadman was at pains to describe it as an “American Opera” not an “Indian Opera”. Synthesis? Enrichment? Appropriation? So much to unpack!
The final theme we explored was Cadman’s relationship with “oppression”. Cadman, like many men in the music world, then as now, was probably gay. His own position as a member of an oppressed minority may have made it easier for him to empathise with Indigenous experience. That theme too finds its way into Jani’s play.
And so to the show… I Call myself Princess is a comedy with a talented, largely Indigenous, cast headed up by Marion Newman as Tsianina Redfeather and Aaron Wells as William Morin; a gay, present day, Métis music student who is handed a copy of Cadman’s opera. Richard Greenblatt plays Charles Wakefield Cadman. Past and present collide in an exploration of the complex web that is “Indian” identity today. There’s lots of humour and I’m assured that some of Cadman’s music is really rather good. When we look back 100 years most of this music has been forgotten and the role of Indigenous performers has been pretty much written out of history. I Call myself Princess showcases today’s Indigenous talent and even explores how that forgotten music influences the songs we hear today.
I Call myself Princess is presented by Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre in association with Native Earth Performing Arts and will play at the Aki Studio from September 9th (previews) and September 13th (opening night) to September 30th. More details and ticket information at http://www.cahoots.ca/shows/princess/
Note 1. I’m currently reading a review copy of a biography of Bertha Crawford; a Scots/Ontarian soprano, who started her career in Toronto’s church music scene around 1910 and went on to a notable career in opera in Russia and Poland. Watch this space!