The Gold Fever Follies 30th season kicked off on Canada’s 150th anniversary with the ninth effort by Follies’ seasoned scriptwriter Brian Turner, sharing the story of how Joe Moris “discovered” Rossland.
The play begins with a young reporter named Lucy (Megan Littlejohn) interviewing Joe Moris (played by Darian Ngai at some points as an older man and by Robbie Turnbull the rest of the play) about his experience as a miner exploring Red Mountain and the obstacles he faced to stake his claim.
Like Turner’s last script for the Follies — Summer is Coming, which was based on Romeo and Juliet — The Red Mountain seems to take some inspiration from Shakespeare. A personification of Red Mountain (Elizabeth Chamberlain) enlists Mother Nature (Victoria Stolting) to help to keep Moris from returning to her, and Mother Nature then turns to Cupid (Darian Ngai) for help. In Puck-like fashion, Cupid’s attempts to meddle in mortal affairs go somewhat awry.
The whole thing would be cute if it weren’t so tone deaf.
Before the performance began, actor Kevin Wasilenkoff acknowledged that the play was being performed on unceded Sinixt and First Nations’ lands and acknowledged the stories that came before those of European settlers, but that was the only acknowledgment of Indigenous peoples received that night.
The first indicator of the play’s strong colonial tone came when Lucy beamed over how Moris “discovered this land called Rossland.” For those who don’t know, the verb “to discover” is generally considered problematic by critics of colonialism as it favours the viewpoint of the colonizer, while erasing the colonized.
Red herself then further erases Indigenous people when she refers to “this undiscovered” valley and acts as if Europeans are the first people she’s ever seen. She then adds insult to omission by later telling Moris that she remembers everyone who’s walked her trails.
That scene, a sort of showdown between Red and Moris, eventually culminates in Red Mountain assuaging any white colonial guilt by giving Moris permission to mine her as he pleases since he “loves this place.”
To say nothing of the grossness of a female personification of nature giving the heterosexual male protagonist permission to bury his stake in her. Later she giggles on stage because the mining is tickling her.
It also says something that last year’s all-female cast number was about breaking the glass ceiling, while this year’s was about the women selling courtship for tips.
While the previous two Gold Fever Follies plays I’ve seen didn’t include Indigenous or Chinese characters, they didn’t come off nearly as tone deaf. In 2017, 150 years after Confederation and two years after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, it seems like at the least a play that celebrates the founding of a colonist settlement should show some awareness of the political environment in which it’s been written. It also seems like perhaps an acknowledgment of the stories and people that have come before is no longer adequate.
To give credit where credit is due, the cast’s performance was strong.
Ngai’s dance moves were impressive and his comedic antics as Cupid delighted the audience. Turnbull and Wasilenkoff’s banjo and guitar showdown was entertaining and showcased both of their musical talents.
It having been the first night there were, of course, some kinks, but the cast handled it well.
For instance, during her portrayal of Colonel Topping, Stolting wore a mustache, half of which kept trying to fall off. She covered for the small wardrobe malfunction by finding creative ways to keep it in place, much to the delight of the audience.
But it would have been better if she hadn’t been singing “mine, mine, mine” while dressed as the embodiment of British imperialism while doing it.