Cliff Cardinal has a bone to pick with land acknowledgments.
“The first time I heard it I thought it was wonderful,” the Indigenous playwright and performer said of the now standard practice in Canada of verbally recognizing the Indigenous Peoples who were the original inhabitants of the land where a public event is happening.
“These are things we’ve been saying back home for a long time,” said Cardinal, who was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and raised between Los Angeles and Toronto (his mother is the actor Tantoo Cardinal).
“But then, as I heard 10,000 of them, it occurred to me that how does someone who has no engagement or connection with Indigenous people or the community whatsoever get to say a few words and accept applause, and walk of the stage like they’re John Trudell? I balk at the hypocrisy of that,” he said.
Cardinal wasn’t thinking of doing anything theatrical with this beef, but Crow’s Theatre artistic director Chris Abraham got in touch during the pandemic and asked if Cardinal might be interested in creatively exploring land acknowledgments.
“I said no, not really,” recalled Cardinal. “But then he said that he would pay me and that’s what theatre’s all about.”
Theatre’s all about getting paid for your work?
“Well, yeah. Some people think it’s about having a message or changing the world, and I don’t think it’s about that. I think the most honest thing that you can do with an audience is earn their money and have them come back next time,” he said.
Thus a solo production was born that premiered at Crow’s in September 2021. It was called “William Shakespeare’s As You Like It: A Radical Retelling by Cliff Cardinal,” but it had nothing to do with Shakespeare.
It started with Cardinal coming onstage and offering what initially seemed like a standard land acknowledgment that got longer and more challenging, and saltier and funnier until it became clear that the land acknowledgment in fact was the show itself: no company of Shakespearean actors was going to turn up.
“It’s very much a standup comedy piece that deals with our political places within Canada, and we lied to people to come and see the show,” said Cardinal.
It was to avoid preaching to the converted, said Cardinal. “We were concerned at the time that the people who would self-select to see Cliff Cardinal’s land acknowledgment would already be on side with the message.”
It was Abraham’s idea to name it after a Shakespeare play that is, in Cardinal’s words, “a gay, frolicky comedy based on forgetting about things.” The Shakespeare title was “the sort of honey on the outside of the trap” to lure audiences in, said Cardinal.
A powerful dynamic underlying the show, which I experienced when I saw it at Crow’s during its premiere run, is that while one might initially feel disgruntled about a bait and switch, this is nothing compared to the terrible injustices and violence that Indigenous people continue to endure.
“A big part of my relationship to being an Indigenous person (is) living in a society that didn’t think I was going to be here,” said Cardinal. “I’m supposed to be dead right now.”
While the dynamic of the production overall was, as Cardinal noted, standup comedy, it also addressed the confirmation in May 2021 that the possible remains of 215 children are buried on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“We owe it to each other as the people who live on the land to talk about it and to investigate it with each other,” said Cardinal of the finding in Kamloops and, since then, many other locations. “I do feel a responsibility to maintain a sensitivity with that. But there is also a responsibility to make people laugh and to let people release and to make people feel part of this. Because clubbing people over the head with terrible things is just going to make people shut down. When you laugh, you open up, your chest opens, your eyes open.”
Word started travelling in theatre circles about the show’s audacity and outspokenness, which many found refreshing: Cardinal was saying things about the performativity and predictability of land acknowledgments that many people privately thought but hesitated to express.
Not all Crow’s audiences knew the ruse in advance and “not everybody was happy about that,” said Cardinal. “But what was great was that the people who did have conflicts, who were offended and who voiced their opinions either on the internet or to me personally during the show in front of the audience, it really solidified why we were doing it. The audience could see the conflict more clearly when they saw people having a hard time” with the show.
One of the theatre people who got wind of the show and came along was John Karastamatis, Mirvish Productions’ director of communications and programming. He found the show’s playfulness “very, very theatrical,” he said.
“Cliff is sly, funny, charming, and he says some things that might be construed as outlandish by others, and then he stops and says, ‘That’s right, isn’t it?’ and you wonder if he’s joking or trying to catch me in something,” said Karastamatis.
The show’s frustration with land acknowledgments was close to home for Karastamatis: “My wife is Indigenous and she hates them, all her friends and relatives hate them, they find them patronizing. If you think this land is what it is, give it back.”
Mirvish expressed interest in presenting the show but with a caveat: that the title be changed to defuse the ruse. “They said, ‘We have 3,000 subscribers. Do you want to be here?’” recalled Cardinal. “And we said, ‘Yes, please.’”
The show that Mirvish and Crow’s Theatre are currently co-presenting at the CAA Theatre is called “The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It” and the marketing materials reveal that this is not a production of Shakespeare.
“We saw Mirvish’s offer to present a non-ruse version of the show as an opportunity to meet thousands more Torontonians who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to see it,” said Abraham. “We thought that was important enough to suspend this important element.”
The show toured in the meantime to Edmonton, Vancouver, Quebec City, Ottawa and Peterborough as “As You Like It” and will continue to do so after this Toronto run, ruse intact. “I’ve been surprised that even with how much has been written about the show, audiences continue to come without knowing the ruse,” said Abraham. “I think we’re comfortable with a mix of folks who know and don’t know.”
The production has already had more than 100 performances and Cardinal is happy for its continued life.
“For a solo show, I want to do it 200 times … Before that, it’s still an experiment.” He’s also working on a film version of the show with Daniel MacIvor, continues to tour another of his provocative one-man shows, “Huff,” and is working on a new solo show called “Everyone I Love Has a Terrible Fate Befall Them.”
“This is a relatable feeling,” Cardinal said of the latter production’s title. “People worry that they’re no good for people. That my connection in your life in some way harming you. And it is, because it’s both things. Of course, we harm each other and we love each other.”
Cardinal said that live performances such as “The Land Acknowledgement” have something special to offer in the context of such concerns.
“We’re still here, trying to make each other laugh,” he said. “Sarah Kane said that theatre is the most existential of art forms. Everyone’s trying to make things that live 200 years. I’m trying to make something that lives for 85 minutes. If we can get 85 minutes of life out of this … we’re good.”
does not endorse these opinions.