Flip the Script Friday: Tomson Highway, Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout

I thought I’d start off 2017 by reviving everyone’s favorite feature, Flip the Script Friday. I’m still in Baltimore until Sunday without access to my script collection, and I only managed to pack one script in my suitcase, so it rather than either pore through online databases or the file of scripts on my computer, I just picked up the book and read it cover to cover. I ended it slightly more confused than when I’d began, despite flipping back and forth several times. I hope that this blog entry can do this quite interesting and offbeat play justice. Heading up north to Canada with Thomson Highway, I delved into Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout. 

Love the title, by the way.

Image result for ernestine shuswap gets her trout

The Basics

Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout premiered at Sagebrush Theatre, Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on 24 January 2004.

Characters

  • Ernestine Shuswap – Fifty-three years old, “earth mother” type.
  • Isabel Thompson – Forty-three years old, religious, on the snooty side. Older sister of Delilah.
  • Annabelle Okanagan – Thirty-two years old, a down-to-earth foil for Isabel.
  • Delilah Rose Johnson – Twenty-one years old, pregnant, and described by the playwright as “high-strung.” Quite unlike the other three, she is chirpy and chipper to a fault, but there’s something a bit off about her. Younger sister of Isabel.

Setting/Plot

August 1910, Kamloops. Four First Nations women are preparing a banquet, expecting a visit from Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, or as they refer to him, “Lolly-Yay” or “the Great Big Kahuna of Canada.” Delilah is sewing a tablecloth, Annabelle is preparing a boiled beaver, Isabel is baking “624 Saskatoon pies,” and Ernestine is hoping to prepare a rainbow trout. As they perform their tasks, they interact with one another and with the text of “The Laurier Memorial,” a list of grievances about the treatment of their environment – specifically, fishing/grazing/hunting rites – written to Laurier and signed by 14 tribal chiefs. Ultimately, one woman takes her fate into her own hands; one woman reveals a shocking detail about her past; one woman prays and rationalizes her way out of everything, and one woman just wants a damn trout.

My Thoughts

This play is extremely intense, both in its very language-specific dialogue/text and its hard-to-imagine but really cool stage directions. As someone not from the community, I found it hard to connect to the characters at first, until I realized the experimental nature of the piece as a whole. I ended up needing to consult some online sources in order to come to a quicker conclusion for my thoughts, which are still incomplete at this time. But back to the play, I think that it’s highly localized and really gives off a sense of who these four women are and where they come from, with a healthy dose of Canadian folklore and saucy humor about lady-parts. Though the progression can seem confusing, looking at it from more of a performance art perspective rather than a literary perspective gives it a lot more meaning.

Major Themes

You May Call Me…

Even though there are, in hindsight, a ton of themes to talk about, the one that spoke out to me the most was that of identity. Colonialism is front and center in this piece, and the characters are constantly reassuring one another of who they are and where they come from, by rarely ever referring to each other by just their first names despite being close friends, but have a language wherein they refer to each other and themselves by their full name and hometown, which, for all of whom, is “First Name Surname of Kamloops, B.C. Midway through, Annabelle comes in to announce to Ernestine and Delilah that their language has been banned, and instead of being mournful, Ernestine and Delilah take the opportunity to make a joke about periods, a point to which I’ll return in a second. The dialogue between the women is less consequential than their long and frequent monologues, which reveal bits and pieces of their backstories, delivered as if they are racing to preserve them before they become extinct.

George Carlin Would Approve

Despite the play taking place in buttoned-up period in history, the four of them make some pretty dirty jokes, either intentionally or unintentionally, and the sexual innuendos jumped out at me from the page right from the start. For example, Annabelle is preparing beaver, remarking that it’s a meat that the white men consider to be inadequate, Isabel and Annabelle refer to an offstage cow and her udders, and Ernestine talks about tits (the birds). Even though the trout is the item which is prized the most, it’s the beaver that interests me; they all (save for Delilah) have a strong opinion about what it means, and it’s not hard to imagine that it stands for the subjugation of First Nations women and the obstacles that they face in society, including problems such as what Delilah is going through.

Image result for robin sparkles beaver

Strings Attached

One of the most notable discrepancies/oddities that I noticed in the script was the music. Highway subtitles this play as “a string quartet for four female actors,” to which Caroline De Wagter compares the four characters: first violin (Delilah), second violin (Annabelle), viola (Isabel), and cello (Ernestine), in order from youngest to oldest, highest pitched to lowest. Once I read this, it’s easy to see the connections: Delilah has a habit of laughing at random times and having a high-pitched voice; Annabelle often serves as her confidante; Isabel sort of marches to her own beat; and Ernestine’s earthiness is a constant element of everything she does and says. Highway also mentions in stage directions that the underlying music, the “river,” should be the notes of a cello, which to me symbolizes Ernestine Shuswap’s connection to the land, as she has been on Earth the longest of the four. The strains of the cello are heard often, even when Ernestine is not the central focus of the scene, and Highway ends the piece with the sound of Ludwig von Beethoven’s “Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major, Opus 69.” I thought that this was an odd choice, considering that Beethoven has nothing to do with Canada. After I listened to it on YouTube, it reflected the rhythm of the piece, with frantic zigzags up and down the scale and lack of a distinct pattern, but rather a cycle. Likewise, the four women in the play are seldom in sync, Isabel, for one, seems to go a mile a minute whereas Delilah, for the bulk of the play, is seated in relative quiet.

How I’d Flip It

Given the fact that the stage directions are intense and specific, I didn’t have too much in mind. Originally, my thoughts were more of a black-and-white, simple color scheme, but I saw pictures and video of a production with colorful handmade dresses, which could also be interesting. I think that arena staging would be kind of cool, maybe with the audience waving mini-flashlights or glow sticks for the scene where Ernestine is swimming among the fish in the river. The coolest part of the dramaturgy is in the script itself: a document which Highway instructs should be printed and distributed to the audience members upon leaving. That, in my opinion, takes it full circle and gives the audience the perspective of the women, who spend parts of the play proofreading and editing its contents and have a connection to their land that is palpable, through their daily life and activities.

Works Cited

Mündel, Ingrid. “Troubling Visions.” Canadian Literature 192 (2007): 164-166. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.

Percy, Owen D. “Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 38.2 (2006): 211-2. ProQuest. Web. 7 Jan. 2017.

Wagter, Caroline De. “Old Margins, New Centres: (W)righting History in August Wilson’s Radio Golf and Tomson Highway’s Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout” In Maufort, Marc, and Caroline De Wagter, eds., Old Margins and New Centers: The European Literary Heritage in an Age of Globalization L’heritage litteraire europeen dans une ere de globalisation. Brussels, Belgium: P.I.E.-Peter Lang S.A, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 January 2017.

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