Sometimes remarkable treasures sit in boxes covered by dust and cobwebs, often in attics, cellars and garages buried for decades.
Indigenous playwright Joseph Anthony Dandurand waited close to 25 years for audiences to enjoy his Salish fable, Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish. Vancouver’s Axis Theatre Company hosted the world premiere in 2017, but COVID kiboshed opportunities to tour the family show outside British Columbia.
Currently free of COVID and with a series of bright, sparkling reviews behind the family-friendly tale, Th’owxiya (pronounced Tho-wox-eeya), is on a planned tour in Western Canada with a stop at Arden Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Th’owxiya is the fable of a First Nations goddess, a basket ogress who hoards tasty snacks from around the world. When kw’at’el (Mouse) is caught stealing a chunk of cheese, she orders him to repay her. The payment required is two spirited children she plans to eat.
Along Kw'at'el's travels he encounters a tree, a bear, a raven and a Sasquatch, new friends who assist him in discovering friendship and honour. But for Dandurand, who is part of Kwantlen First Nation located on the Fraser River, environmental stewardship is a major element.
“The big theme is when you take something you give something back. Tony (Dandurand) is also a fisherman. In the Indigenous culture, you only take enough for yourself, and you give something back. When the fishermen take fish, they give the bones back. It’s a way to preserve nature and overcome adversity,” said director Chris McGregor.
Dandurand first wrote the 45-minute play for the Museum of Civilization, now rebranded as the Canadian Museum of History, in Gatineau, Quebec. It was slated to play in the Grand Hall, an impressive indoor public space designed to showcase Indigenous culture, history, literature, art and songs. Unfortunately, the project stalled.
Fast forward to 2015. Dandurand, now an award-winning poet, playwright and author, sent an adult-themed script to McGregor. Due to Axis Theatre’s 46-year mandate of producing plays for children and families, McGregor asked if the playwright had a children’s script. Out popped Th’owxiya. After trimming the cast down to six actors, shaving minutes off the script and paring down the set, it was ready to be workshopped.
“My biggest challenge was that I didn’t know anything Indigenous culture. I’m not Indigenous. But I loved that it incorporated masks and physical theatre. I wanted to treat the play with respect, so I went to Margo Kane, the founder and artistic director of Full Circle, a Vancouver Indigenous theatre company.”
Kane was immediately on board, and with her consultations, McGregor brought Jay Haven to the table. The Mohawk set designer, who grew up as co-Salish, designed props, costumes, and a set based on authentic Sto:Lo Nation designs. Sto:Lo Nation is a political umbrella for 11 communities.
Artisans crafted special authentic touches such as traditional cedar-woven hats and paddles. In addition, two carvers were hired to carve a 400-year-old cedar log as Th’owxiya and her basket.
Throughout the development of Th’owxiya, McGregor hoped audiences would develop an appreciation for First Nation’s voices.
“I wanted people to appreciate the legends and where people came from in their culture. I wanted to talk about the Kwantlen people and how they came down to Earth. I wanted to educate and entertain. And throwing in the idea of respecting the environment and only taking what we need is important. And then there’s the adventure with super fun characters.”
Th’owxiya: The Hungry Feast Dish starts Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Arden Theatre, 5 St. Anne Street. Tickets are $18 to $20 plus taxes and fees. Call the box office, 780-459-1542, or online at tickets.stalbert.ca.