Alanis King’s ‘3 Plays’ brings thought provoking characters to life

Alanis King, formerly of Wikwemikong, signs a copy of her book ‘Alanis King: 3 Plays,’ during her Ottawa launch. photo by Shelley Pearen

by Shelley Pearen

OTTAWA—What do Nanabush and Jesus, warrior Tommy Prince and a talking buffalo all have in common? I posed this question on the launch of the book ‘3 Plays’ by Alanis King in September 2015.

After reading ‘3 Plays’ I can confirm that not only are they all characters in plays written by the renowned playwright and director Alanis King, they are remarkable, endearing, thought-provoking characters brought to life by a multi-talented artist.

Ms. King is from Wikwemikong. She is the daughter of writer and educator Dr. Cecil King, the author of ‘Balancing Two Worlds, Jean-Baptiste Assiginack and the Odawa Nation 1768-1866.’ Ms. King describes her childhood in Wikwemikong as being surrounded by music, dance and storytelling. It is clear to anyone reading or watching her plays that she benefited from her early Wikwemikong years.

Ms. King was the first aboriginal woman to graduate from the National Theatre School. She has produced, toured, and directed many plays and is a former Artistic Director of the Debajehmujig Theatre Group. Her plays ‘The Manitoulin Incident’ and ‘If Jesus Met Nanabush’ have been enjoyed by many Island residents and visitors in productions of Debajehmujig Theatre Group.

It will be no surprise to anyone that the book ‘3 Plays’ contains three plays: ‘If Jesus Met Nanabush,’ The Tommy Prince Story’ and ‘Born Buffalo.’ More surprising, however, is that the plays cover topics as diverse as religion, war, and captivity and arouse emotions as extreme as laughter, regret, curiosity and hope in the reader. In fact hope, whether spiritual, personal or cultural, is the interconnecting theme in the plays.

‘3 Plays’ could be described as three supernatural encounters: Jesus and Nanabush, Old Tommy and Young Tommy, and Meshe the buffalo and the twins.

‘If Jesus Met Nanabush’ is a cosmological First Contact story. It’s a series of encounters between the Anishnaabe trickster Nanabush and Jesus. Their first meeting takes place at a powwow. Two more opposite characters would be hard to find. Jesus is serious and quiet while Nanabush, a half man, half spirit being, is fun-loving and loud.

The interaction between Nanabush and Jesus, whether at the powwow or a bus depot and even a tavern, is entertaining and thought-provoking.

About 16 pages in I forced myself to put the book down and think about what I had just read. Perhaps think is too serious a term. Actually I thought, chuckled and then re-read it aloud. That’s quite a complement if you consider I had just heard Ms. King herself read many of the same passages two hours earlier at the launch of the book.

The second play is ‘The Tommy Prince Story.’ Tommy or Thomas George Prince was a Saulteaux man who became Canada’s most-decorated aboriginal war veteran. He was an outstanding marksman, tracker and trapper, who was initially rejected for military service. Eventually he received 11 medals for his service in the Second World War and the Korean War. Sadly, he spent his later years in a Salvation Army hostel and died homeless in Winnipeg in 1977.

This poignant drama presents Tommy’s life through the voices of ‘Old Tommy’ and ‘Young Tommy.’ Brief dramatic scenes set in diverse settings bring Prince’s story to life in a way no typical non-fiction or even fictional account could.

Ms. King has successfully portrayed the life of a great warrior who, despite the most honorable service to his country and recognition by Great Britain and the Unites States, was less than honourably treated by his country on discharge.

The third play, ‘Born Buffalo,’ is set in Saskatchewan and is a magical encounter between a talking buffalo and fraternal twins at a Saskatchewan zoo. Ms. King cleverly intertwines a lecture on buffalo by a scientist with Cree twins being lectured by a buffalo. This heartwarming historical and environmental story is a tale of freedom and transformation that will be enjoyed by young and old alike.

How to describe the plays—in a word—clever, two words—clever and poignant.

The books size is deceptive. At 148 pages a reader might assume it is a quick read and it could be, but I recommend you take your time, and pause to contemplate scenes and phrases. You don’t need to be familiar with Ms. King’s plays or Native theatre to enjoy this book.

Alanis has clearly embraced her people’s traditions and stories and magically shared them with readers. I highly recommend ‘3 Plays.’

‘3 Plays’ is published by Fifth House Publishers and Red Deer Press, distributed by Fitzhenry & Whiteside. It is 148 pages long, sells for $22.95 and is available at The Manitoulin Expositor bookstore in Little Current.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Shelley J. Pearen is the author of the popular books ‘Four Voices The Great Manitoulin Island Treaty of 1862’ and ‘Exploring Manitoulin.’ She reviews books that she thinks would appeal to Expositor readers.