Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Cliff Cardinal's clever and powerful play William Shakespeare’s As You Like it, A Radical Retelling has taken the top prize in the drama category for the 2023 Governor General’s Literary Awards.
What makes Cardinal’s work clever is that his drama has absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare’s pastoral play. Instead, it is a “ruse,” as Cardinal calls it.
The “radical retelling” is the author monologuing how much “I f…ing hate land acknowledgements. I find them so goddamn patronizing…I’ve often wondered what these land acknowledgements accomplish, aside from making white people feel good about themselves,” Cardinal said.
During the pandemic, Cardinal was approached by artistic director Chris Abraham of Crow’s Theatre in Toronto about tackling land acknowledgements in a creative way. Part of that creative process, Abraham determined, involved giving the play a name that would attract a crowd that hadn’t given much thought to land acknowledgements.
The play covers a wide range of what needs to be acknowledged, from the land itself being “older than I am good-looking…Well…Maybe not that old” to “what would we love to overlook?” And then Cardinal launches into “rape camps,” his phrase for Indian residential schools, and unmarked graves.
The drama is billed as “part stand-up, part dramatic monologue.”
Cardinal tells Windspeaker.com that he admires “the ideas of George Carlin and Richard Pryor, where they go into complicated subject matter and write from a personal perspective…and it has to be blisteringly funny. So that's kind of the art that I grew up on…For me it has to be both things. It has to be funny. It has to be serious. We want to be sexy and exciting. We want to be the whole thing.”
Using the standup/dramatic approach in the performances at Crow Theatre, Cardinal thought perhaps he could convert people and make them think deeper on land acknowledgements.
“Well, it turned out that there was going to be no one converted…That was a bit naive for me to go, ‘Well, if I say this, then everyone's going to show up and agree with me.’ That was never going to happen,” Cardinal said.
“They have thought about (land acknowledgements), but they put it to bed. They said, ‘Oh, that's what I think. That's my sound bite. Let's just leave it at that.’”
That “sound bite” is the typical wording of a land acknowledgement that lists the Indigenous peoples to whom the traditional territory belongs and offers little else.
But not so with A Radical Retelling.
“All of a sudden, they show up to see their favourite Shakespeare characters. They came to see Mickey and Goofy and Donald Duck. And instead, they get Cliff… So there I go. I come out. They don't like me and I stay. And I stay for 80 minutes. And I talk about things that they were fine with their own opinions about. So, it was a very confrontational thing from the beginning,” said Cardinal, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D. and was raised between Los Angeles and Toronto. His mother is actor Tantoo Cardinal.
It took a few people beyond the playwright to keep the secret of what A Radical Retelling was really about. In the credits to the script, Cardinal lists Crow Theatres’ creative team Abraham, Rouvan Silogix and Ryan Cunningham as “co-conspirators.”
“Because there was lying, and Chris Abraham went before a journalist and lied. It was the most wonderful thing I ever heard in my life. And it was a fool. It was a mischievous thing. And we all came clean about it later. But for him to do that for these ideas that came out of an Indigenous community and Indigenous perspective, for him to lie for us and open the doors to his theatre so that we could come in, it was like a really special thing. So with honour, he's a co- conspirator. We're thick as thieves,” said Cardinal.
However, the ruse could only last so long, despite Cardinal imploring his audience, both readership and those in attendance, to keep the secret. He writes, “I…nay beg…We think it’s cooler if people show up and are surprised…If you feel inclined to join them in our ruse…tell them about the Shakespeare.”
The play premiered in this fashion in 2021 at the Crow. However, a condition of its moving to Toronto’s larger Mirvish Theatre was to do away with the ruse. The name was changed to “The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It” and the marketing materials made it clear it was not a Shakespeare production.
While Cardinal has won the Governor General’s award for his play as a literary work and not as a production, he says it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other.
“It's two parts. It's not just the words. It's me. You got me. Because…when you read the text, when you read a play, it's half of it and the other half is the production,” he said.
Judges Aaron Bushkowsky, Tai Amy Grauman and Julie Tamiko Manning call the script “…a blistering indictment of the country we call Canada, (in which) Cliff Cardinal challenges us to ask ourselves what role we play and are prepared to play on the path forward. It spares no one, not even the performer himself. It’s a rant, a fool, a stand-up routine and an angry personal essay full of humour, insights and surprises.”
Cardinal says a “blistering indictment of Canada” was never his intention.
“A lot of that stuff (written by the judges) is a little bit out of my view. What excites me is being able to go in and do the show and talk to my Indigenous community over the heads of rich people. That's the honour. That's the real honour,” he said.
Cardinal adds that the play is “an invitation to have a relationship with the Indigenous community that's based on honesty…That means accepting our truth as well.” He expects a non-Indigenous readership will have a hard time with that.
With the announcement of the Governor General’s award, “The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It” has got a “handful more presentations” and Cardinal says his new solo play “Everyone I Love Has a Terrible Fate Befall Them” has also received “a little audience bump.”
“Another honour is that I'm from Turtle Island. I'm from this land and so if someone hears one of my stories or one of my songs and that becomes part of the fabric of their lives on this brief walk through this life, that's a real honour. That's a huge honour for me. It means the world. And so a thing like the Governor General's award, if that's going to put the stories of…the people whose difficult lives I bring to the forefront, I'm really happy about that,” he said.
As for the $25,000 that comes with the award, Cardinal says he and his best friend will be “taking a trip to an ancient culture.” When and where have yet to be decided.
On what the future holds, Cardinal is somewhat philosophical—or bitingly funny.
“This moment will be over and whoever knows about me now will forget about me and I'll be back to doing my work in obscurity, as God intended,” he said. “I mean, obscurity is always within your grasp.”
This is Cardinal’s third script. He has also written “Too Good to be True” and “Huff & Stitch.” His work can be purchased through Playwrights Canada Press at https://www.playwrightscanada.com/Books/W/William-Shakespeare-s-As-You-Like-It-A-Radical-Retelling
Windspeaker is owned and operated by the Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, an independent, not-for-profit communications organization.
Each year, Windspeaker.com publishes hundreds of free articles focused on Indigenous peoples, their issues and concerns, and the work they are undertaking to build a better future.
If you support objective, mature and balanced coverage of news relevant to Indigenous peoples, please consider supporting our work. Whatever the amount, it helps keep us going.