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October 8, 2019

From the Rehearsal Hall: Interview with Daniel David Moses

In this series of weekly blog posts, Community Outreach Consultant Tyler J. Sloane will provide content, commentary, conversation, or insight into the rehearsal process of Soulpepper’s first Indigenous production, Almighty Voice and His Wife by Daniel David Moses. Read on for a compelling interview with the playwright.

Tyler J Sloane (TS): What inspired you to write about Almighty Voice?

Daniel David Moses (DDM): I was puzzled by him. I didn’t take history when I was in school, the history teachers in highschool – I didn’t trust them. I grew up on a reserve. I always assumed the way a white man told the story wasn’t going to be right. By the time I came across this historical story, I didn’t have any context, I didn’t know why this happened. I was just puzzled by it, so I decided I tried to figure out a way to make this story to make sense for myself. Y’know it was something that really happened, so you can’t ignore it. 

It took me about 10 years to finally get all the information together. And then of course it was the most miraculous writing process.  Where I got to go to Banff playwrights colony for three weeks, and it just came out day after day. It was waiting to appear on the page. There’s been minor edits and revisions, but it was basically the whole piece – it was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever had a writing project that’s worked so beautifully, and of course after ten years (the last Toronto production was in 2009 at Native Earth Performing Arts) something had to happen. 

TS: How do you feel this play lives in today’s industry and society?

DDM: Uhm, well I guess I have to take the press at its worth, that it’s already been more than a quarter century and despite having a few productions it’s become a classic. It’s a piece that a lot of the younger generation as theatre artists have had to actually study, so they recognize now the artistic chances I took with it. It’s never been out of print. (Chuckles)

TS: White Girl and Almighty Voice are iconic and real people, yet there’s such a flip in the second act. How does this play speak to indigenous love?

DDM: Once again, I have to go by the reactions to it. I find that a lot of women who have talked to me about the play really like him because he actually listens, and understands what’s going on. Despite having his own issues to deal with. I don’t know if that’s particularly Indigenous love, but that sort of connection between two individuals is intense for them. It’s what’s the first act is about. Them discovering each other despite the things they have to fight against.

TS: What were some surprises for you with this piece?

DDM: It’s been so long. I guess I assumed that the critical audience was more educated about the nature of theatre than they proved themselves to be. There were very few critics who got it the first time out. We actually had duelling reviews posted outside the first production. One critic loved the first act – hated the second act. And the other was bored by the first act but really loved the second act. But none of them thought they (each act) were part of a whole piece. It works on binary energy. It’s about a couple, a relationship between two people, about two types of theatre aesthetics – also that binary between truths and facts that are disputed in history.

TS: So why the two different styles? 

DDM: It just felt right. A lot of the decisions I made I was just following instincts, a few others following a line of thought. I mean, I try to remember the beginning of line of thought where I mention the white face. I think I knew there was sort of travelling medicine shows. There was not only black people in – caricatures of black people (blackface) – and caricatures of real Indians (red face). But there were always these characters from a mainstream point of view (during Daniel’s upbringing) – and only a glimmer of reality coming through them. But basically they were tools for this economy to be growing in North America.

TS: So was being able to do more of the vaudeville and white face in the second act a way of reclamation of information for you?

DDM: It’s also a satire – they’re  showing these people (Hollywood, Vaudeville, etc…)  how silly their ideas were and how mean their attitudes were. I know a lot of people can be very upset by the whole style of the second act. That was part of the thrill for me. It’s both shocking, but really good theatre. It seemed to be true to me. People in an extreme situation react in an extreme way.

TS: On access to arts programming, grants, our storytelling as Indigenous artists – then versus now…

DDM: When I was growing up there was one radio program on CBC that covered Native issues and then it got canceled. Then there was a long time where we weren’t part of the media. Clearly now we’re there every week – there’s a whole section on the CBC covering our stories – even the small ones. Since the TRC came down, people have released ‘obviously we’ve screwed this up and we’ve got figured this out’.

Y’know, I taught at university for 16 years teaching, largely teaching white kids, and I was teaching them native plays. I’m mostly interested in the writing of the play. But of course they kept saying ‘Is this based on History?’ and I said ‘yeah that’s just the way it is’. The Students would get angry they hadn’t been taught these plays in their education. So a lot of them are ‘okay I want to learn this now’. My list of plays was their introduction to a broader understanding of what Canada may be about.

TS: I’d love to know what you’re working on now?

DDM: At the moment I have a play I want to write that’s on hold. There’s more research I want to do. The book I’ve found that will be the last bit of reading I’ll do for it, hasn’t been officially published for it. I’ve read of a review for it back in the spring and immediately felt okay this will work for what I want to do. It’s a Mohawk memoir of the war of 1812. The publisher keeps pushing back the release date, so I’ve got to wait until the second week of October. Originally it was supposed to be out in June. In the meantime I’m writing poetry. It’s been a good year for poetry. I always have a pile of old ideas that I dig up and work on. This year I’ve also had ideas come to me out of the media. As a for instance, I was on the National Geographic website. They had an article about people sighting in California – blue eyed coyotes. Of course they talked about possible mutations, but I was thinking- what that means for coyote stories?

TS: It sounds like you write about what you’re curious about, is that true?

DDM: The best comes out of that impulse. Like anybody I can see a political situation and be offended about it, but I don’t feel like I can write about unless I have a specific question. A lot of people write to say ‘this is screw up’, and I write to say ‘why the hell is this screwed up?’ 

TS: Who inspires you now?

DDM: Inspires me? I was really amazed by Steven Hawking – the physicist – who worked all those years with ALS. I also, met her twice, Ursula Kayla Gwen the science fiction writer. Deeply moral writing, exquisite prose and writes really really amazing worlds. I like stuff like that. I don’t know why I was rereading Angels in America – and thought ‘god this a good play! This is so cool’ I wish someone would do another production, it’d be fun to see it again.

TS: Does your queer identity ever come into your writing?

DDM: I think it’s always there, it always shapes how I perceive things. The new play I’m writing, has two characters, one of them is sort of an observer of the tragedy. He’s the brother of the girl who gets killed, and for no real reason I decided he’s gay. So I mean partly it’s dramatically interest, if he can take a second look at the villian: he’s kind of an evil man but he’s also attractive? ‘Ew that’s gross.’ I’m not going to say anymore about that piece until I have a first draft.

TS: What about this production excites you about Michaela Washburn and JD Smith and their work?

DDM: Oh yeah he’s great! Even though I was living out in Kingston for all those years, and whenever I could see Michaela’s work in Toronto I’d let her know just so I could see it. She’s just a committed artist and she delivers. It’s so neat when the rest of the community realized that. Of course Jani she was the first White Girl all those many years ago. I guess this piece has a history and will be living with this history. 

TS: Final thoughts?

DDM: Looking forward to it. I love being in rehearsal anyways. Of course because this play is so established, I don’t have to do rewrites. I’m excited to watch the process – and I was there last week and we made  two slight edits. No one will notice, but we will. (Chuckles)

Almighty Voice and His Wife begins performances on October 11 and runs through until November 10. We invite you to join us for our first Indigenous production, and to share in the experience with artists and audiences alike.