Café Daughter holds a mirror up to who you are and where you’ve been

In chatting with Lisa C. Ravensbergen and Tiffany Ayalik about Café Daughterthe show they’re currently directing and starring in respectively, you get an immediate sense of the chemistry they must have in the rehearsal hall. Joking and laughing, but also echoing one another’s comments about the show and then expanding on them, the two seem totally in sync with each other and the show they’re building, which runs November 25 – December 6 at The Backstage Theatre.

In a show that Lisa calls one of the most self-referential shows she’s worked on, that chemistry, as well as what Lisa calls an “affinity of process” is critically important to bringing the show to life. Tiffany and Lisa first worked together last fall in Victoria’s Belfry Theatre’s production of Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters. From acting together in that production, Lisa thought she and Tiffany might work the same way, but that belief was solidified throughout the audition process. Lisa says, “I was looking for somebody who was willing to do the work of being inside the work of what it is to be an actor, someone who I trusted to embody the character, and who I thought might have an affinity of process with me… I feel that my role in the room is to facilitate a path that an actor can enter into and embrace their own imagination and then I witness that and reflect it back. If there isn’t an ease – what I call an affinity of process – in this particular play, it felt like we wouldn’t have the time to adjust to each other. I felt that we had to get off the plane and pick up and start going.”

Café Daughter is Kenneth T. Williams’ one-woman play inspired by Senator Dr. Lillian E. Quan Dyck’s story of growing up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1950s and 60s. The play follows the fictional character Yvette Wong, beginning when she’s 9 years old, through her journey of following her dream to become a doctor despite the racism she encounters because of her Chinese-Cree heritage.

Lisa and Tiffany’s admiration of Senator Dyck and the path she’s pioneered for Aboriginal and Chinese Canadian women is clear when the two talk about the show’s inspiration. Lisa says, “Ultimately, for me, this is Senator Dyck’s honour song. It’s an honour song for her… My intent is to honour her and honour that struggle and journey that she forged and continues to forge. Left, right and centre that woman is kicking butts and taking names. She’s amazing.”

Although Café Daughter is a look at the story of one particular person growing up in rural Saskatchewan, Tiffany says the story it tells and moments it shares are ones that many Aboriginal people relate to. “Even though I’m not of Chinese or Cree background, I’m still an Aboriginal person in this country and even though I grew up in the Arctic, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this tune is familiar.’ It’s nice to know that even though I didn’t grow up in Saskatchewan or Alberta or anywhere down here, that my experiences are also validated because of what I went through and what my parents went through. It’s nice to know in that sense that we’re not isolated even though we’re separated by language or culture or custom. This is a universal thing that we’ve gone though.”

Being set in the 1950s and 60s, Tiffany also says the show also offers up opportunities for discussion about how or if things have changed. “Even though the clothes or the speech or the political time might be different than our own time right now, there’s still so many things where you can say, ‘Wow, we’ve really come a long way,’ or ‘Oh, actually we’re still there.’ These period pieces are still relevant and they’re always offering up that mirror. I think, especially for myself having two wonderful lineages that I’m claiming, that there are challenges even today and it brings up a lot of questions – well, okay, how can we make it better? Okay, we’re not calling each other blatant slurs anymore for the most part, so there’s a win, but how has the attitude changed? Or has it changed? Are we just being more polite with our language or have we actually changed how we look at each other? That’s something I really liked about [the play] – at the centre of it is this little kid who needs to be taught about racism and prejudice and there’s something so beautiful about that.”

Lisa echos Tiffany’s comments, saying, “I think it would be very easy for audiences here to go, ‘Oh, this doesn’t really happen. These things don’t happen,’… It’s easy to go to plays and go, ‘This is pretend.’ Even today we were talking about how it’s not pretend. It’s the container that’s pretend in that it’s a performance.”

Lisa also comments on the format of the story being told as a memory play. “It’s one woman’s story told through her memories that call her back to herself. And somehow those memories are the conduit by which she claims what is present… Even though it’s a memory play, I feel like that’s part of how memories push us towards a new tomorrow or a new future. It’s not because we simply remember and passively watch the pretty and sad things that happened in our lives, but it’s actually to go back and investigate what was it about this moment that was important. Because it is important now. I think for me, that’s the ongoing action in the show. It’s about living inside the present moment knowing that the past is pushing us towards the future.”

When I spoke to Vern Thiessen, Artistic Director of Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre in the summer, getting an overview of the season he had programmed for Workshop West, he mentioned wanting to facilitate discussions about how a particular play fits into today’s society. Tiffany and Lisa agree that Café Daughter will do just that.

Tiffany’s hope is that people who might take the play as a period piece and a moment in time are, “promptly invited to a conversation with people being like, ‘Well, actually here’s a brief history lesson and here’s why it’s still super relevant and/or happening 10 minutes ago because it just happened.’ I’m hoping people are brave enough to say how they feel so we can continue to explain why it’s so relevant still… Especially today, and for so many different Aboriginal people, there’s this balancing act of culture and heritage and language and whether you are or whether you’re not and what is the blood quantum necessary and what certain ceremonies must you execute perfectly in order to ‘earn it’? What are the rules for when do you get to say or to identify, and… who gets to decide? I hope people walk away with questions and I hope it gives as many questions as it answers. I hope that some of them get answered but then it’s like, ‘Oh, okay your turn to carry on that conversation.’ And I hope that it’s fun and that people see that there’s levity and there’s a lightness to these really heavy things that happen and the levity and the childlike quality is what carries us through.”

For Lisa, she hopes Café Daughter inspires the audience to question what makes them who they are and who they are becoming. “I think this story is an invitation to never forget who you are and for people to come out of another woman’s story and ask themselves, ‘How did I get to where I am and where am I still going? When I look back on who I’ve been, is that still where I want to be going?’ I think that’s just a general big life question that I’m curious about as a person, but it’s shaping my directorial impulse in the room. Even for myself, I’m trying to understand who Senator Dr. Lillian E. Quan Dyck actually is through this fictionalized character of Yvette. To try to understand it as a mirror to my own understanding of where I’ve been and the resonance of finally seeing myself on stage. Even though I’m not Chinese-Cree, there’s so much resonance for my own life, especially growing up on the Prairies it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s where I’ve been and this is who I am. How do I raise a son now and allow myself to still discover who I am and the good and the bad and all of that?’ I hope that there’s also some of that for people, that they do allow themselves to be personally opened, examined, invested in response to Yvette’s story.”

As we wrap up the interview by talking for a few moments about the design T. Erin Gruber is putting together for the show, accompanied by sound design by Shawn Gan, Lisa describes what she and Tiffany and the whole Café Daughter team are offering up to Edmontonians: “It is really a beautiful world that the designers are inviting people to enter. It feels like there is a bit of a little baby feast that Workshop West is bringing to Edmonton and I hope that people can come and sit at the table and give their thanks for all that those artists – as a company – that we’re all bringing for a meal of food for thought, as it were. I just wrote your closing paragraph, right there!”

That you did, Lisa!

Café Daughter is written by Kenneth T. Williams and will be produced by Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre in association with Alberta Aboriginal Performing Arts at The Backstage Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns November 25 – December 6. Tickets are $22.50 – $27 and Wednesdays are pay-what-you-can at the door or $10 in advance.

Looking for more information on Café Daughter? Check out the video interviews on Workshop West Playwright’s Theatre’s YouTube channel.

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