Herbie Barnes, Katie Ryerson and Darrell Dennis set out to secure a bargaining chip for the return of a medicine bundle from a British museum during Drew Hayden Taylor’s latest play Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

By Rick Garrick

Drew Hayden Taylor’s recently commissioned play Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion was a hit during its preview at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The comedy featuring Herbie Barnes, Darrell Dennis, Martin Julien and Katie Ryerson runs from Oct. 3-14 in the Azrieli Studio.

“I haven’t seen the production yet but I’ve worked with Herbie Barnes and Darrell Dennis about two or three dozen times over the last 25 years — we basically grew up in theatre together,” says Taylor, an award-winning playwright and humourist from Curve Lake. “The first preview was last night and I understand there was a standing ovation from the audience.”

Taylor initially turned down the opportunity to write the play, but changed his mind after considering the possibilities of the first prime minister’s story.

“I thought it would be an interesting exercise to explore who the man was and sort of more wrap my brain around how and why he is so pivotal to many of the negative aspects of First Nations history,” Taylor says. “He was the first minister of Indian affairs and so on, so he had a lot of answering to do.”

Taylor read “a lot of books” about Macdonald and his involvement with Native people before writing the play.

“The repercussions of that involvement were very obvious,” Taylor says. “Everybody has been talking about them so that it became very apparent what needed to be addressed and how they should be addressed.”

The play features Barnes and Dennis as two friends who set out with a university dropout, played by Ryerson, to secure a bargaining chip through a daring heist. The main character Bobby Rabbit has unfinished business with the prime minister over his grandfather’s medicine bundle, which was taken from him at residential school and is now in a British museum.

“His grandfather’s medicine bundle was taken away to a museum in Europe and he’s been trying to get it back,” Taylor says about Rabbit. “And nobody will give it back so he needs a big bargaining chip.”

The play is about finding life’s purpose, knowing when to hang on and when to let go.

“Drew Hayden Taylor knocks it out of the park again with this witty challenge to our moral biases,” says Jillian Keiley, artistic director of NAC English Theatre. “Can one sacred thing be more sacred than another? Whose lives are more important? Whose bones?”

Taylor says the play was based on a “Rez legend” that he had heard from different people over the years.

“You have to watch the play to understand, but they sort of interact with Sir John A. themselves,” Taylor says. “It becomes fun, because what is interesting about this play about Native people and Sir John A. from my perspective is there is lots of music in it and it’s a comedy. I’m a firm believer in the power of humour in the Native community.”

Taylor is scheduled to participate in a Pre-Show Chat from 6:30-7:30 p.m. on Oct 11 about Weighing the Legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald Towards Indigenous People. Sarah Waisvisz, NAC English Theatre’s artist-in-residence, will moderate the Pre-Show Chat between Taylor and Tracy Coates, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies.

Two productions of Taylor’s play Only Drunks and Children Tell The Truth are also scheduled for this fall, from Oct. 26-Nov. 11 at Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay and from Nov. 11-Dec. 2 at Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver.