Darrell Dennis has a message for the white man (and woman) who comes to see Tales of an Urban Indian
, his new solo show at the Public Theatre: It’s OK to laugh.
“I’ve performed this piece all across Canada and the U.S., and the native audiences laugh hysterically,” says Dennis, a young Indian from British Columbia’s Shu Swap tribe. “Non-native audiences take a while for them to realize it’s funny, and that it’s OK to laugh.” It’s also OK to identify: “This is my story, but coming to terms with who you are, no matter what race you are, is universal.”
The painful history of native or “First Nations” peoples in the Americas has been the source of many great narratives, but it’s not a natural fit for comedy. That’s where Dennis, whose show--part of that $10-a-ticket Public Lab series--mixes some standup conventions with more poignant theatrics, comes in.
You can hear his ironic sensibility in the way he talks about the near-invisibility of native peoples in the mainstream culture.
“It’s almost like native people are a thing of mythology, like leprechauns,” Dennis jokes. “Because it’s not always easy to recognize us, people don’t realize we’re bankers, we’re lawyers. If we’re not in Dances with Wolves
, with long hair and buckskins, we don’t get recognized.”
Of course, one reason Indians seem invisible to mainstream culture is their geographic isolation on reservations—a decidedly mixed blessing which is also psychologically distancing and can make integration into the dominant culture especially disorienting.
“I grew up on reservations in the interior of B.C., without much contact with non-native peoples,” Dennis recalls. “I moved to Vancouver, and, like many native or aboriginal people do, sort of ended up on the mean streets and got into habits of self-abuse and self-medication. But I pulled myself out of it through sheer tenacity and will.” It’s here that Dennis stops himself for a quick reminder: “The show is actually a very funny show. It sounds pretty dark, but it’s handled in a way that’s very humorous. I know it’s a cliché to say this, but it’s a real roller coaster ride.”
And while the lightly fictionalized tale of Simon Douglas, the narrator of Tales of an Urban Indian
, is essentially Dennis’ own story, this cultural journey is increasingly relevant to his own people.
“More than 50 percent of native people now live in urban centers,” says Dennis, who just attended a symposium where the topic was, What makes a real Indian? “The question of identity is a very big topic going into this new century. It’s a huge discussion, and an ongoing debate: Do we maintain our culture by staying on reservations, or do we become integrated? Do we maintain our traditions or stay in poverty?”
Indeed, though the United States has broken one historic barrier by electing an African-American president, Dennis’ show is a gentle reminder that the history of the U.S. and of Canada contains many unexpiated crimes.
“This country is built on the backs of very many races,” Dennis concedes, but adds, “Where do you start and where does it end? It’s like, have we apologized to everybody yet? How many people do we still have to go through?”
Dennis’ sense of humor, or at least his awareness of absurdity, might have begun with his name: For some reason, Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs had him registered as “Simon Douglas,” the name he now uses as his fictional alter ego in Tales of Urban Indian
. It took several years, in fact, for his mother to get the name changed to Darrell Dennis.
If you’ve noticed that both these names sound oddly formal—and completely non-Indian—that’s because his region’s native naming customs are rooted in a wrinkle of colonial history.
“You’ll notice in British Columbia that a lot of the native people have two first name—like Sam Bob, Gary Dave, Joe Pete,” Dennis says. “When the missionaries came in and started converting people to Christianity, they couldn’t pronounce our names, so they started taking the name of the priest who converted them. So if it was Father John who converted them, their last named would be John.”
Of course, that doesn’t make some activists happy, Dennis says. “There’s been a lot of people trying to reclaim our traditional names, but that’s a lot of history to wade through.”
His traditional Indian name is worth recovering, though.
“I was given an Indian name when I was born,” Dennis says. “It was Little Coyote. Coyote is the trickster figure in my culture, so I think it’s sort of fitting that I ended up doing what I do.”
Click here for more information about Tales of an Urban Indian.
Photo credit: Native Earth Performing Arts