Cliff Cardinal’s play Huff is an emotionally riveting, brutally frank portrayal of life for three young Aboriginal brothers on a Reserve in Northern Ontario. It is theatre that grabs the audience by the throat and holds them at attention. The places that Cardinal takes you during this 65 minute solo piece are likely ones that you would rather not see, but that is what makes them the most important for us to experience. These stories have been pushed to the shadows, to the crevices of this country that are so remote most Canadians have only vague connotations of them, for far too long. Cardinal shoves this story forward and forces us to contend with it and with our own complicity and shame.
What is most effective in the telling of this story is Cardinal’s ability to bring together the harrowing and the playful. The stakes are high from the very beginning. Our protagonist emerges with a plastic bag duct taped over his head. He will soon run out of oxygen and will not be able to breathe- we also will not be able to hear his story. It soon becomes clear that he is trapped in a cycle of suicide, of being slowly choked and deprived of the necessities of life, of feelings of worthlessness and helplessness and despair. He needs our help and he gets it, literally, from a member of the audience who removes the bag from his head- who takes it from him- in attempt to save him from himself. Cardinal sets up this unsettling, yet realistic, dynamic in the first moments of the play. He doesn’t have the resources available to learn how to save himself, he is reliant on an outsider- an outsider who may not do what is best for him and, it becomes clear, is only a temporary solution to his very immediate problem.
This protagonist is the middle son born to an alcoholic mother and an abusive father, who their children mythologize as being the most beautiful woman and the warrior. Their mother commits suicide and the boys’ lives unravel even more ardently. Charles, the eldest, begins to abuse his brothers physically, emotionally and sexually. The middle brother, Wind, tries to protect his sweet, naive, more whimsical little brother, Huff, who is the most impressionable to the elder two’s interests in inhaling gas, setting fires and playing the “Pass Out” game, all of which Huff thinks are breathlessly “awesome.” The responsibility toward Huff is also taxing for Wind, who feels useless in school and resented at home and forgotten, or completely invisible, to anyone else beyond Mischievous Trickster. It is only their grandmother, Kokum, who is overwhelmed and brim-full of despair, who tries to give the boys some familial love and stability, but whose own resources are desperately lacking.
Cardinal captures the physicality and energy and the depth of emotion of each of his characters and the way that he melds from one to another so gracefully conjures imagery of the morphing, teasing Trickster. It is especially poignant how Cardinal is able to create the relationship between Wind and Huff while only ever being able to portray one of them at a time. There are also darkly funny hallucinated interludes where skunks come to life and Game Show Hosts and Radio DJs provide distraction and escape from the realities of these children’s lives. Wind and Huff’s school is represented as a bleak milk crate with the students dramatized as beer bottles. It is a place where they are chastised and isolated instead of being empowered or encouraged.
Karin Randoja directs the piece in a way that keeps the story thrust toward the audience at rapid pace and ensures that Cardinal’s action are crisp and clear for the audience as he embodies a large number of characters in quick succession. There are nuanced references in the story and in Elizabeth Kantor’s set and projections that show glimmers of the traditions and culture of these Aboriginal peoples and then how, with time, they have become submerged and mutated under the heavy influence of their subjugation by the rest of Canada.
Cardinal does not offer any solutions for Wind and his family in this piece and as the anguish and tragedy builds and builds throughout the piece at times it seems like the situation here is insurmountable. He implicates his audience in this way, for I do believe that we all bear responsibility for the unjust actions of our former (and current) governments that have contributed to the lives of those living on Reserves across our country being deplorable, inhumane and unacceptable for a First World Nation, especially one that prides itself on its social conscience and commitment to equality and human rights. We can feel ashamed that this exists in our country, but in order to achieve any sort of positive change, we must use our shame to propel us to action instead of hiding it away and burying it in guilt. Huff is an invitation to bring a room full of strangers together in conversation. It is an invitation to demand more from our MPs and MLAs and Councillors to make Aboriginal issues a priority. It is an invitation to see Aboriginal issues as a collective problem to solve together rather than a marginal one. It is an invitation to see the humanity instead of the newspaper headline.
It is also important to see the hope, to see the potential and inspiration, to see the bright light that is shining out of Cliff Cardinal himself, the proof of the power of just one young, Aboriginal man who is making a difference for his communities and for all our communities through storytelling and bravery.
Huff plays today, June 28th, 2014, for its closing performance at the David Mack Murray Studio Theatre at the Dalhousie Arts Centre (6101 University Avenue) at 7:00pm.