After some deliberation, I have decided I must respond to Chelsea Novak’s review of the Gold Fever Follies’ opening show which appeared in the Rossland News on July 6.
While Novak was complimentary of the performance of the cast, she had been extremely critical of the script itself, and of the playwright, Brian Turner, for being insensitive to Indigenous People. She, and her husband of First Nations heritage who also submitted an article critical of the play, had seen the play as a glorification of colonialism. Ironically, most of the criticisms that were directed at Turner’s script were actually additions and changes made by the cast and directors during the work-shopping and rehearsal of the script.
THE RED MOUNTAIN, written by Brian Turner, was written in honour of Rossland’s 120th birthday. Yes…it focused on a white man’s “discovery” of gold on Red Mountain, because it WAS that “discovery” that lead to the gold rush that ultimately brought 10,000 people to settle in what is now known as Rossland. However, we thought we had made it clear that while our recounting of Rossland’s history was being told from that “white perspective,” we most certainly acknowledged the existence of our Indigenous people.
First of all, in addition to verbally acknowledging that our “performance takes place on the unceded territories of the Sinixt and other First Nation People”….and that “before it was named Rossland, many more stories took place here,” we also intentionally placed quotation marks around the word “unexplored” in the program’s synopsis of the play—to specifically acknowledge that the story was being told from the “white perspective,” and that in fact, Indigenous people had been passing through this area as part of their traditional nomadic hunting and gathering way of life.
Secondly, any use of language which appeared to ignore the presence of the Sinixt or other Indigenous peoples who considered this territory as theirs was purely unintentional. Using words such as “discover” occurred simply because the script was based very closely on historical primary sources, specifically the memoirs of Joe Moris offered in newspaper interviews of the past. Inevitably, the language of the time has a way of slipping in, and we apologize for that. We had actually taken great care to avoid wording so typical of the “white European” perspective, but evidently, we missed a couple of spots in our script.
When retelling the history of our little city, we have happily included bits that reflect the existence and contributions of other non-white, non-European people — most common, our references to our early Chinese community, especially when we’ve been able to hire performers with Asian backgrounds.
We would love to include something about the Sinixt as well, but the simple fact is, in our many years of historical research, we have yet to find anything even suggesting a regular Sinixt presence in the area. According to all our research, the Sinixt passed through the area, usually during the berry season, on their way either south to their encampments in the Kettle Falls area or to our north in the Arrow Lakes area. They seemingly had no permanent or even semi-permanent settlements on Red Mountain or its surrounding area. Once Rossland became established as an official townsite, and had its own newspaper, the Rossland Miner, there were occasional references in the news to names belonging to Aboriginal people…but little else.
So it is hard to include the story of the Sinixt and other tribal groups, when they seemingly were not involved in Rossland’s early history. And that is what the Gold Fever Follies celebrates…the early history of Rossland…not the Kootenays. Even if we could fictionalize a story involving an Aboriginal person in Rossland’s early gold rush days, we would likely be criticized for having a “white” actor taking the role. (As yet, we have never had an Indigenous person audition for the Follies. We have hired at least two with Métis status, and in fact, have a Métis as part of this year’s cast, but they have not looked Indigenous enough to pull off such a role.)
As for the criticism of Colonel Topping’s song of MINE, MINE, MINE: The Follies performs light musical comedy. It is not our role to portray the dark and sad histories of Canada, but when we can slip in a political comment subtly, and with good humor, we will do so. Such was Colonel Topping and his song. At great risk of offending his descendants, we intentionally dressed him in the pith helmet of the Boar War, and portrayed him as a greedy buffoon in an effort to subtly mock those “colonizing white Europeans.” When Rebecca Peterson added that song, we had thought it was a clever play on the action of mining, and the desire to own everything.
I also question Novak’s understanding of the message about women’s position in society in the song LIFE OF SERVICE. Somehow she saw it as our stereotyping women in a subservient position in society, when in fact, we were acknowledging the reality of the time. But we created characters with lines that clearly showed that they were NOT contented with their lot in life. They DID aspire for more, but had to do the best they could with what life in 1890 offered them.
Lastly, I would like to comment on Novak’s use of “tone deaf.” While the word can be used to describe something that is “insensitive” to its social and political surroundings, most people tend to associate the word with musicianship. And while Novak may have felt the script, as presented on opening night, was a bit “tone deaf”, our cast is most definitely not musically tone deaf. In fact, this year’s cast is one of our strongest in vocal talent…and I encourage those who have not yet caught our show, to do so soon. The singing alone is worth the price of admission. (The dancing is great too.) Our show closes on Saturday, Aug. 26.
President, Gold Fever Follies