The Canadian north has long been a place of mystery, even to Canadians. With its remote communities, challenging weather, and seemingly endless natural expanses, those of us in the south are both curious and cautious — what we “know” comes from media, from photos, but almost never from our own experience. For this reason, it seems especially important to welcome our northern visitors, especially artists like Reneltta Arluk, who bring plays by and about northerners to Montreal where the show will be staged in English as well as make its French-language premiere.
TUMIT, a word meaning “tracks” in Inuktitut is a northern indigenous play about breaking generational patterns of abuse. The one woman show follows Sarah, who is not only pregnant, but has just kicked her husband out of her home for being an alcoholic. “You realize that it’s not too far off from how she was raised,” explains Arluk, the show’s writer and English-version star. “Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother was not in her life. She’s struggling to decide if she will keep the child. She doesn’t know if she will.”
Arluk tells me that there is an autobiographical character to the show, but it veers away from her own experiences. “The relationships are autobiographical,” she says. “David, the father character and the grandparents. There are some areas that are not from my life, but are there because the show needs to go to those places. Her journey is different from my journey.”
Arluk says that even though she is northern indigenous, she didn’t specifically name the plays as northern indigenous. “I wanted my audience to name it,” she says. “And they do. Absolutely northern, absolutely indigenous.”
Given that northern communities seem to be in the news the past few years, the show is not only timely, but also showcases a side of northern culture that people do not often see. “We don’t see the relationships between indigenous women and grandparents, and what it’s like to grow up in the bush and move to the city and make decisions. We don’t see TUMIT in any other form. We don’t see the struggle of an indigenous woman balancing her life, struggling and overcoming things, and seeing it on stage,” she says.
I ask some things that make it specifically northern play. “There’s the humour — a little dark or sarcastic. There’s the grandmother and the wind. You’ll get the storytelling part of indigenous culture. We break fourth wall to tell stories to the audience, as a young Sarah or as she’s talking through things. She talks to the audience at times. There’s a fourth wall and it’s sometimes broken. That’s a form of traditional storytelling.”
One reason the play feels so northern is that a good chunk of its cast and crew are from the north. Not only is Arluk from the north, but sound designer Travis Mecredi comes from the north and is able to invoke that specific ambiance. When the show was first staged, Arluk brought her original director to the north. “She was from New Mexico, living in Edmonton. I brought her to Yellowknife to where I run the company [Akpik Theatre]. She was not prepared for it at all,” laughs Arluk. “It impacted how she approached the play because she got to experience the environment of the play.”
Even though she’s been living in Vancouver and still runs her company otu of Yellowknife I ask Arluk about the community she comes from. “It’s a 7 1/2 hour drive from Yellowknife,” she says. “Everything is a long ride in the north. It’s hard to be away.” When she first moved to Vancouver she felt out of her comfort zone, but stuck with it because she wanted to keep challenging herself as an artist and a person. She also tells me how many northerners drive to Edmonton to get supplies at Costco and then just drive back north. “There’s none of this ‘in an hour we’re going to get there,'” she says.
The play has been very successful. It has travelled from Yellowknife to Edmonton and Vancouver. The Montreal production alternates between the English version and the world premiere of the French language version (translated by Mishka Lavigne), both directed by Montrealer Jessica Abdallah. Another feature is that the cast and crew are half indigenous and half not, making it “very diverse.” Not only is Arluk a northern indigenous woman, but Emilie Monnet, the actress playing Sarah in the French version is indigenous as well. Sound designer Travis Mecredi is Métis.
I conclude by asking Arluk if she has anything else in the works. “TUMIT will keep on going,” she says. “People are interested in bringing it to their theatres and I wouldn’t put in so much effort and work if I didn’t think it would have a life. But I’m always working on other projects. I’m working on a show about Tookoolito, a Inuk woman guide from the late 1800s. It’s very different. It keeps growing. It’s a monster.”
TUMIT plays at the Mainline Theatre starting November 13-21, Tuesdays-Sundays. 8 p.m., with additional 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets $20/18.