REVIEW: Agokwe Hits the Ground Running

Posted by Wayves Volunteer 18/07/2014

Playwright/Actor Waawaate Fobister triumphs in this story of gay love on the Rez.

By Hugo Dann

Canada has an incredibly strong community of First Nations' theatre artists. Among the Two-spirited, playwrights Daniel David Moses and Tomson Highway are towering figures. Twenty-five year old author and actor Waawaate Fobister should have no qualms about holding his head high in their august company.

I urge everyone to go and see his play, Agokwe (Queer Acts until July 20). But be careful if you do. There are Gods on the stage; earthy, sexy, funny, and terrifying.

The first character we meet in playwright and actor Waawaate Fobister’s one-person, performance extravaganza is Nanabush, the Anishnabe Trickster figure. He appears before us in glittering Thunderbird drag, making sure we understand that we can only see him because he chooses to allow it. Nanabush is our guide on this on this story of gay love on the Rez, but he’s not the only spirit around. There are other darker forces surrounding star-crossed lovers, Pow wow dancer Jake and Mike, the star hockey player.

Agokwe is the Anishnabe term for Two-spirited, a person gifted with both male and female spirits. Here Agokwe is both title and theme. Fobister has Nanabush deliver a crash course on the significance of Two-spirit people in First Nations history and culture. The play itself is a manifestation of the terrible consequences for both individuals and society when that culture gets displaced or crushed. Fobister/Nanabush makes it clear that he’s telling us this story for a reason. He wants us to get our act together.

The play is set in the Northern Ontario town of Kenora and its surrounding Reserves. Racism, segregation, stereotypes, and homophobia constantly collide. There’s plenty of gallows humour, but it’s not pretty, and Fobister makes us deal with it.

The image of a drunken Nanabush, sprawled on the ground, power chugging a bottle of vodka, provoked in my mind a host of instant cliché, racist responses that I am ashamed to admit to, but such is the indoctrinating power of the white Canadian culture I grew up in. Fobister handles these issues with a humanity and insight that show wisdom beyond his years.

Other moments stood out for me: a breathless, tender story of gay love at first sight (we don’t hear enough of these!); the prayer of a young man to his Creator, begging to be changed; the heartbreaking grief of a parent for a lost child; the deliciously comic reasoning of why the male G-spot is where it is. 

Director and Dramaturge Ed Roy has been with the project since its inception, approximately 5 years ago. He handles both material and presentation extremely well. As mentioned above, the pace of the show is driven, but sure, turning on a dime from ribald comedy to heartbreak.

Agokwe is the most technically accomplished production yet mounted at Queer Acts. There are large drums on the stage that serve as screens for projected images, both designed by Andy Moro. Such effects are rarely to my liking, but there is a shadowy image of a Pow wow dancer suggesting freedom and grace that appears just as Mike and Jake seem posed to find both; beautiful. The score and sound design by Marc Nerjewan and Lyon Smith are excellent, though sometimes a bit loud for the intimate Bus Stop Theatre.

Agokwe premiered in 2009 at Buddies and Bad Times Theatre in Toronto (continuing their long history of fostering young queer talent). That first production went on to win multiple awards in Toronto and has been touring the country since, playing in big theatres and in community halls on reserves across Canada.

I understand that on the smaller reserves, where there is no way to accommodate the set, lights and sound, Mr. Fobister presents Agokwe “unplugged” as it were. I can’t help thinking how much I would love to see that; nothing between the play and my imagination but this gifted young actor and his beautiful story.

Editor's Note: For information about purchasing tickets and show times, follow the link to Queer Acts FB page

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