Stages of Diversity — Cliff Cardinal’s Huff offers a startling fresh voice of Indigenous knowing

Huff runs March 15-19 at the Belfry's Spark Festival.
Photo by AKIPARI
Huff runs March 15-19 at the Belfry's Spark Festival. Photo by AKIPARI

With all the talk about the lack of diversity at this year’s Oscars—no surprise, really, given mainstream Hollywood’s predilection for preserving the straight white male’s dominant supremacy in popular culture—those seeking relief should turn to live theatre instead, where diversity seems to be in the spotlight at the Belfry’s annual SPARK Festival.

In addition to the likes of the Governor General’s Award winning Iceland—helmed by Indo­Canadian director Ravi Jain of A Brimful of Asha fame (last seen at SPARK 2013)— and the much-­anticipated Gay Heritage Project (created and performed by queer folk Damien Atkins, Paul Dunn and Andrew Kushnir), SPARK is also heralding the boundary-pushing Betroffenheit, a dance/theatre hybrid created by former local Crystal Pite and Vancouver’s Jonathon Young of the always exciting Electric Company Theatre, as well as their usual lineup of free mini­plays and other special events.

But the most exciting show may well be the return of Cliff Cardinal’s Huff, a stark, staggering and utterly compelling slice of rural Ontario life guaranteed to change the way you think, and feel, about contemporary Indigenous issues. A Cree playwright and National Theatre School graduate who is not the only talent in the family (his mother is acclaimed Canadian actor Tantoo Cardinal, likely best known for Dances With Wolves but also recently onstage at the Belfry in The Rez Sisters), Cardinal is absolutely a talent to watch, as evidenced by the success of this multi-­character solo show he wrote and performs.

First seen locally as part of 2013’s Uno Fest, Huff staggered audiences with its surprisingly funny yet disturbingly dark look at the many forms of abuse—physical, sexual, substance and solvent (thus the show’s title)—threatening contemporary Indigenous youth. It then went on to win multiple awards and universal acclaim with performances at the likes of the National Arts Centre and the Magnetic North and PuSh festivals, before now circling back again to Victoria. (It’s a similar cycle followed by Hawksley Workman’s The God That Comes, which workshopped at Uno 2012 before returning to Spark in 2015.)

When it comes to showcasing the power of diversity, Belfry artistic director Michael Shamata says live theatre has the advantage over other forms of entertainment. “When you’re listening to stories with other people, you hear them differently,” he says. “It makes a stronger impact than sitting at home and watching a movie. Theatre is better able to float ideas . . . it makes the ideas presented that much more alive, and any discussion more easily received.” And supporting both cultural diversity and the development of Indigenous artists and stories is a strong part of the Belfry’s artistic statement.

Indeed, Huff is merely the latest in a long line of work by Indigenous playwrights seen at the Belfry: consider the likes of Drew Haden Taylor’s Toronto at Dreamer’s Rock, Shirley Cheechoo’s Path with No Moccasins, Kevin Loring’s Where the Blood Mixes and Tomson Highway’s Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout. (Fingers crossed for a future local fest appearance by Waswaate Fobister’s two­spirited Agokwe, an Indigenous queer play that blurs all kinds of boundaries.)

Directed by Karin Randoja and produced by Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts—Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous theatre company, now in its 33rd year—Huff offers locals a second chance to see a significant new talent on the rise. Given the success of this, his second play—he debuted with 2011’s solo show Stitch—Cardinal is currently being described as “one of the most exciting new voices in Canadian theatre,”and that’s not just hype. Huff is one of the most memorable pieces of theatre you’ll see this, or any, year.

Huff runs March 15­-19 at the SPARK Festival, which itself runs March 11-­26 at the Belfry and the Royal Theatre. Full details at­festival­2016.


Words by John Threlfall

Published in analogue magazine’s Feb/March 2016 issue.