The power of words
Review by Norah Pendergast
Justice is a basic human need, and for many Canadians, including people of Métis heritage, justice has been illusory since the birth of our nation.
How does one find meaning in life without justice? Sheldon Elter embodies that quest for meaning in the auto biographical play, Métis Mutt, which demonstrates how claiming public space and creating introspective art can rehabilitate dignity and provide rationale in a hostile and absurd world. Pre-dating truth and reconciliation by over a decade, Métis Mutt uses stand up comedy, song and multi-character vignettes to tell Elter’s personal story of confronting his internalized shame from racism and intergenerational trauma.
Elter started his performing career in the late 1990s, commodifying his spiritual scars as a self-deprecating stand up comedian. “I thought I was Chris Rock,” he says, he got big laughs and paid the bills making racist jokes about himself. He stresses that Métis Mutt is a period piece; the discomfort audiences feel today at racist jokes is a very recent phenomena. He mirrors for audiences his evolution as an artist who, in the early days was ignorant of his role as creator and of the power of his words and attitudes.
Métis Mutt was first realized as a seven-minute monologue for a class project. Elter credits Ken Brown, who was his instructor and mentor at Grant MacEwan College, as a co-creator who helped him develop the performance into a full length play in 2002. It was directed by Ron Jenkins. Despite the harrowing story through which Elter guides the audience, his comedic instincts have matured and this sophisticated tragicomedy still has many moments of hilarity.
Through the vocal masque technique of jumping from character to character and vignette to vignette, audiences are absorbed by a performance that challenges our need to define his experiences through the status quo ‘colonial measurements’. The vocal masque technique of sparse narration rapid character transitions is propelled by over 370 cues within masterful sound design by Aaron Macri and projections by Erin Gruber. The sound and projections create space for the audience and for the actor on the simple set, designed by Tessa Stamp, pulling the story from one memory to the next, symbolic of the intrusive, non-linear quality of traumatic flashbacks.
In Métis Mutt, Sheldon Elter’s resilience in surviving drug addiction and profound spiritual pain is beckoned by supportive characters and mentors, people who cared for him more than he was able to at times. Inspirationally, Sheldon Elter balances the harsh (searingly harsh for colonizers like me who have benefited from historic policies of genocide) with comfort and humour and it is easy to see why he has toured reserves as a motivational speaker.
After seventeen years of performances on national and international stages, Métis Mutt, deserves recognition as a Canadian theatre classic for its contribution to the cultural knowledge of Canada. Kudos to Sheldon Elter, Festival Director, Adam Brazier and to the Confederation Centre of the Arts for truth telling this summer and for prioritizing our nation’s spiritual quest toward reconciliation.
—The show plays Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm until September 1. For tickets visit confederationcentre.com/whats-on/.