'Cafe Daughter' Chronicles Canadian Insitutionalized Racism in the Mid-20th Century
Ninety minutes of compelling story, an astounding performance of 12 characters by one amazing actress, great script and art direction, many painful truths and a pile of tear-soaked tissues. That’s what you’ll get investing your time, energy, emotions, and ticket price in Gwaandak Theatre’s production of Café Daughter.
Written by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, Café Daughter tells the story of Yvette Wong, a Chinese-Cree girl growing up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1950s and ‘60s. The play – in effect, a one-woman show -- was presented at the Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, with actress PJ Prudat portraying Yvette and another 11 characters. Café Daughter was directed by Yvette Nolan.
Prudat, who is of Cree, Salteaux, French, Scandinavian and Metis heritage, more than pulls off the entire play, owning both the story and the stage, drawing the audience in. When the story begins, Yvette is a bright, ten-year-old girl who dreams of being a doctor, but because she is not white she is put in the class for slow learners. After the play, which depicts Yvette’s long journey through and struggle against institutional racism, the audience left happy, fulfilled and spent.
The story was inspired by Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, and contains many truths, both historical and personal, about her life -- but it’s also about so many other just plain folks who endured the racism and prejudice of those times. The history goes back 100 years, but it feels very recent, and while the script is up-North Canada, similar laws also existed in the US to protect the virtue of white women from immoral minorities.
“This is such a challenge,” Prudat told ICTMN. “It’s an actor's dream, truly. It will always allow for me to continue to grow as an actor and give me new insight and moments to explore. It is a very rich script, and with the deft direction of Yvette Nolan, the freedom to play and expand the work is always possible, hopeful, and accessible. But also because the story seems to reach out and touch so many communities, people of all walks of life, cultures, ages, young and old and speaks to both men and women -- which I believe is a rare feat that Kenneth has achieved.”
Playwright Williams met Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck while researching nominees for the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation Awards in 1999. An internationally renowned doctor of neuroscience (and a Senator from Saskatchewan), she had a compelling story about her education and Cree identity. Then Kenneth discovered a shocking revelation: That it was illegal for her Chinese father to hire white women for his café. As a result many First Nations women worked in these cafes, which often led to marriages and children.
As Williams says in the playbill, “it’s very strange to thank racist legislation…to help create me a play…The Indian Act, the Chinese Immigration Act, the Employment of Female Labour in Certain Capacities Act (Saskatchewan)”.
It’s eye-opening to learn just how much “drama” goes into this “quick” 90 minute play: So many personal stories needed to be condensed into one story for one mixed blood character, as well as the 11 other Prudat must portray as distinct individuals. This is an important play for both Canadian and American societies, who claim diversity because they know that skeletons such as this still rattle. We will always need these soul-searching realities over soulless so-called reality shows.
“A friend of mine recently asked if it is scary and lonely to be up there, on stage by myself” Prudat told ICTMN. “But when i thought about it I realized I was never alone in the telling of it; it is a story for our communities, it is of this land, of our ancestors and of the history of this country and therefore the audience is every bit a part of the telling of it as I am; so, no, i never, ever feel alone. I feel fulfilled and enlivened to share it. It is for Lillian and her family that it is truly an honor to perform it.
Gwaandak Theatre is looking to tour this production. Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company will be mount a separate production in Saskatoon April 19-28, which will be directed by Heather Inglis and stars Kristin Friday. Kristin is from George Gordon First Nation, the Reserve that Dr. Lillian Quan Dyck is from.