Tragi-comedy drama in two acts by Tomson Highway, first produced in 1989 by Native Earth Performing Arts and Theatre Passe Muraille. The production then relocated to the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1991, the first work of First Nations Theatre on that stage. It occasioned critical controversy over the portrayal of the denigration of First Nations women by the men.
On an Indian reserve (or "Rez"), the men band together to protest an all-girl hockey team. The men on the Rez see this encroachment of women as another assault on their identity, and the play touches on what an Indigenous identity means.
Dry Lips is full of conflict – of Indigenous spirituality with Christianity, of men with women, of one business plan with another. But the violence and anger are presented initially as farce. Painful experience becomes the subject of humour, the only way in which it can be surmounted or endured. This inversion of tragedy as comedy is prevalent in Indigenous writing: laughing enables survival. Although the mood darkens with the rape of Patsy Pegahmagahbow and the death of Simon Starblanket, and the Rez descends into chaos with the playing of the hockey game, harmony is eventually restored when Zachary awakens from his nightmare -- which has comprised the preceding action in the play. Perhaps Highway is suggesting that the nightmare of the colonization of the First Nations in Canada must be witnessed and acknowledged, but that it need not preclude the possibility of domestic and social harmony. He in effect uses the language and aesthetic forms of the colonizers to tell the story of his own people.
As in The Rez Sisters, the Trickster figure, Nanabush, observes and interacts with the characters and the action. Nanabush is performed as various manifestations of women who embody both the despair and the hope of the Rez: Gazelle Nataways, the sexual predator who spreads discord and chaos; Patsy Pegahmagahbow, who incorporates the traditional past and the hope for the future; Black Lady Halked, who embodies the self-destructive habits of the Rez, the consequences of which are disastrous to the innocent as well as the guilty.
The characters in Dry Lips are not simply victims, however. Simon Starblanket, whose last name reifies the positive nature of his quest for the spiritual beliefs of his ancestors, struggles towards self-realization in terms of a lost tradition and spirituality. With his pregnant girlfriend, the granddaughter of a medicine woman, he intends to visit South Dakota, the site of Native suppression, to celebrate the renaissance of First Nations culture by dancing with the Sioux. Although he lacks mentors, Simon tries to learn to dance and chant, and “the magical flickering of [his] luminescent pow-wow dancing bustle,” which is doubled and amplified by a dancing bustle worn by Nanabush, provides an oppositional symbol to the death-dealing cross.
Spooky Lacroix has embraced Christianity as his salvation, even though it is shown to be at the root of the subjugation of Native peoples. He has in effect substituted a mindless addiction to Christianity for an addiction to alcohol, and uses his religion to intimidate others, such as Dickie Bird Halked, who uses the crucifix as a weapon of sexual violence against Patsy.
Big Joey postures as a warrior, in rebellion against the colonizers. He regards himself as the Rez stud, but he is completely irresponsible, denying his paternity of Dickie Bird Halked, and blaming the women for his powerlessness. He claims that his participation at the Native rebellion at Wounded Knee in South Dakota has left him spiritually castrated – a martyr to the cause. But Big Joey’s violence is more often used against others on the Rez than against oppressive white systems.
Dickie Bird Halked embodies the ills of the Rez society: He was born in a bar, and suffers the mentally debilitating effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, the most telling effect being that he cannot speak. He is spooked by Lacroix’s religious extremism, and by Big Joey’s violent response to the women’s hockey team. Deserted by both parents, he kills Patsy’s baby before it is born, thus putting in doubt any hope for the future.
However, the play ends with the birth of Spooky Lacroix’s baby, ironically delivered by a First Nations midwife and medicine woman, and with the laughter of Hera and Zachary’s baby. These children suggest the possibility of a better future which can reconcile cultural and social difference. As Highway has pointed out in an interview:
"I think that every society is constantly in a state of change, of transformation, of metamorphosis. I think it is very important that it continue to be so to prevent the stagnation of our imaginations, our spirits, our souls. . . . What I really find fascinating about the future of my life, the life of my people, the life of my fellow Canadians is the searching for this new voice, this new identity, this new tradition, this magical transformation that potentially is quite magnificent. It is the combination of the best of both worlds . . . combining them and coming up with something new." (Ann Wilson. “Interview”, in Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions. Ed. Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990. 354).
Writing in The Globe and Mail, Ray Conlogue said, "These many strands - bloody, comic, classical, contemporary, native and European - are not satisfactorily drawn together. But there is so much power in the various strands that the play transcends its confusions and creates moments that are among the most emotionally riveting that I have seen this theatre season. What it could be with an energetic rewriting is intriguing to contemplate." Marian Botsford Fraser, also writing for The Globe and Mail said, "It is not the nature of either dreams or great drama (this play is both) to be definitive, tidy and patly reasonable. But I wonder how a native woman dramatist would tell this tale."
Dry Lips was translated into French by Jean-Marc Dalpé.
Reading: Anne Nothof. "Cultural Collision and Magical Transformation: The Plays of Tomson Highway." Studies in Canadian Literature 20.2 (1995): 34-43.
Commentary by Anne Nothof, Athabasca University
Last updated 2019-10-18