LENOX — With “Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story,” Canadian Indigenous playwright Kim Senklip Harvey (Syilx and Tsilhqot’in Nation) has given us a thoughtful comedy about two sisters who, over the course of the play, come into their own as they each claim their power and heritage as Indigenous women. With all its cultural and human richness and theatrical opportunity, “Kamloopa” deserves better treatment than it is getting in director Estefanía Fadul’s loosely formed, hit-and-largely miss production for WAM Theatre, which opened over the weekend, with an all-Indigenous female cast, in Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
Harvey’s play — which won the 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama in Canada — draws its title from one of the largest powwows in Western Canada, held annually (it’s been suspended during the pandemic) just outside the town of Kamloops in British Columbia. The powwow is the destination of two Indigenous sisters — Mikaya (Ria Nez) and her older sibling, Kilawna (Sarah B. Dennison) — who set out on a road trip to the event guided by a newcomer to their lives, an individualistic young Indigenous woman they met at an Indigenous hangout who identifies herself to Kilawna and Mikaya as Indigenous Friend No. 1 (Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed).
“Kamloopa’s” first half is set in the East Vancouver apartment shared by Kilawna and Mikaya. Kilawna (played by Dennison with a nearly unvarying air of desperation and exasperation) works at an office and does her best to hold things together — keeping house; tidying the messes her sister leaves behind — while Mikaya, a college student, has yet to find her groove, They are both caught in a world of “White Settler supremacy” that has over centuries brutalized, slaughtered, victimized, dismissed and diminished their race and culture.
“They find out you’re Native and everyone looks at you with constipated faces. Like you were once a real person and then all of a sudden you’re in a museum, standing behind the glass, holding a basket of corn,” Kilawna says to Mikaya, who is grumbling about a condescending art history professor.
“Don’t let these leftist, white, liberal women professors get to you. You’re fine. It’s fine. This … (Indigenous) thing. Just leave it alone.”
But she can’t; not quite. Then, one day in class, the art professor pushes Mikaya to her limit of “comfortability” in front of the whole class; “put me on the spot .. and I completely flubbed it,” Mikaya tells Kilawna. The moment is rescued by “a super-Indigenous woman” who stands up and before everyone in the lecture hall delivers an ah-ha moment for Mikaya as this woman relates a story from her Nation in her nation’s language. “Then a ray of light came through the roof as a drum appeared in their hand and an eagle landed on her shoulder and they sang a song together around a fire that just suddenly, poof, appeared,” Mikaya tells Kilawna.
“She turned everyone’s constipated faces into these enlightened looks of ease and contentment.
“I want to do that! I want to influence the wind with my mind, the sun with my songs, and the birds with my stories.”
Kilawna, who has been the object of disrespectful comments at her office, responds with wry, sarcasm. She grows even more wary when, after a night of bar-hopping with Mikaya, they find themselves with a roommate who calls herself (Indigenous) Friend No. 1 — INFI for short. She’s a young, individualistic, idiosyncratic Indigenous woman who hooks on to Kilawna and especially Mikaya as a guide, a tutor to help the sisters reclaim their culture. “I told her … how it’s important that we know what it really means to be Indigenous and she said she would help.”
It is INFI’s idea that the three of them attend Kamloopa. Since she is the only one with a driver’s license, Kilawna reluctantly agrees to drive them to the powwow.
On the page, “Kamloopa” is a finely told story about two Indigenous women who learn not only how to claim their heritage but also the heart and soul of a sibling relationship that can be as contentious and challenging as it is warm and inviting.
Unfortunately, Fadul’s production is not as sure-footed as Harvey’s writing. The rhythm, particularly in the first half, is choppy, loose; not at all crisply defined.
As INFI, Goodspeed is more concerned with striking attitudes and poses than developing a meaningful character. Nez struggles to find her footing as Mikaya. Dennison, on the other hand, is on a much more clearly defined path as Kilawna. She and Nez rise to Harvey’s occasion in a consequential argument between the two sisters at their campsite on the eve of the powwow but the emotional groundwork is missing. It’s as though this argument is happening in a vacuum. Scenes, especially in the first half, drift from one to the next without connection or cumulative sense of the dramatic arc that drives “Kamloopa” to its hopeful natural outcome.
Not only does Fadul’s production miss opportunities to get inside the fabric of Harvey’s narrative, it also fails to more embrace the storytelling’s elements of magical realism. In terms of lighting and of sound, the manifestations of the ancestors and spirit animal shifters are mundane, unimaginative; barely felt.
The road to “Kamloopa” may be well-intentioned, but it’s a bumpy ride nonetheless.