Winner of the 1990 Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award
Winner of the 1989 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Play
Shortlisted for the 1989 Governor General’s Award for Drama
Any first year English student knows that in the broadest of senses, there are four genres of literature: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama – and of course each of these has their own endless lists of sub-genres. Drama is one of the most difficult genres to read and, I would imagine, write. The story is essentially conveyed solely by dialogue and it is primarily written to be performed rather than necessarily read. When reading a play, you are thrown right into the middle of the action, often with very little context and it can sometimes be difficult to get an initial grasp on the story and characters, especially with contemporary drama which tends to push the envelope. The average literature student struggles with drama more than other genres and very very few literary blogs review books of drama. With all of that being said, reading a play can be just as rewarding as any novel or volume of poetry. Canada is very lucky to have more than its fair-share of world-class dramatists: Sharon Pollack, George F. Walker, Judith Thompson, George Ryga, Catherine Banks and Daniel McIvor just to name a few. I’ve been collecting more Canadian plays lately and I’m planning on adding more of the genre to my reading rotation, starting with this selection.
Tomson Highway is one of Canada’s best known playwrights and Native writers in general and his works are frequently included in the curriculum of Canadian literature courses. I’ve previously reviewed his novel Kiss of the Fur Queen on my site. His signature work is, without a doubt, his play The Rez Sisters, the story of a group of women on the Wasaychigan Hill reserve going to the world’s biggest bingo. Today’s selection, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, is the companion and quasi-sequel to The Rez Sisters and takes place on the same reserve. This play uses hockey to bind several misanthropic characters together in a play that is equal parts comedy and almost unbearably dark tragedy.
Right off the bat, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this as much as The Rez Sisters, which happens to be one of my favorite plays. But, after letting it marinate for a few days I have to admit my opinion of Dry Lips is more favorable than it was when I initially finished. It’s difficult to give this book a proper review without revealing spoilers, but I’ll do my best.
The play has a few arcs that eventually intersect and burst. We have Zachary who wants to open a bakery to bring some prosperity to the reserve and is worried about his wife finding out about his adultery; we have Big Joey who is trying to connect with his son, Dickie Bird – who suffers from severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome; Pierre who is ecstatic to be the referee in the women’s hockey game; Spooky who uses pious Christianity as salvation from his wild youth; and Simon, a mysterious character that seems to float from situation to situation. The two acts are very well defined; the first act is very comedy heavy while the second is very tragedy filled and difficult to read in certain spots. Throughout the play, the action takes place under that watchful eye of Nanabush – the Trickster, the Christ-esque creature that is often omnipresent in Native literature.
The positives of Dry Lips were all related to Highway’s unflinching and unromanticised depiction of life on the reserve and the inherent problems that go along with it. Violence, alcoholism, poverty, fetal alcohol syndrome, and cultural decay are all taken on in a brutally unforgiving way. This is punctuated with a particularly disturbing scene between Dickie Bird and Patsy. At the end of the play, you are left with neither a pessimistic nor an optimistic feeling. Instead, Dry Lips leaves the reader with a sense of realism. Life on the reserve is ugly and there are no easy solutions.
The negatives are a little harder to put your finger on. The action of the play is very frantic and scattered at times. Obviously this can make the plot and forward momentum difficult to follow, especially since a few of the main characters are essentially reflectors and interchangeable. Also, the stage directions are very detailed and more than are typical in contemporary drama; I think this would likely leave little room for a director to leave their stamp on a production.
All in all, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing is a good, and ultimately, important play. It takes on difficult themes, it uses language creatively, it does interesting things with the Trickster character, and it completes a mythology started in The Rez Sisters. This may not be a play for the casual reader or even a good introduction to Canadian drama. But, for the advanced CanLit reader, for someone interested in Native lit, or for someone with a deep interest in Canadian drama, it is a worthwhile, if not essential, read.