Métis actor PJ Prudat delivers a brilliant performance in Café Daughter, a play by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams and directed by Yvette Nolan.
Café Daughter tells the story of Yvette Wong, a girl of mixed heritage growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1950s. Her father is Chinese and he runs a small town café. Her mother is Cree.
When Yvette is 10, her mother extracts a promise from her. She must never tell anyone she is Cree. Yvette holds this secret close to her heart along with a dream. She wants to be a doctor.
Café Daughter is a one-woman show and Prudat inhabits no less than a dozen characters, some of them male, including Yvette’s Chinese father, a bullying racist classmate, a supportive teacher who later turns on her, and her Cree grandfather.
There are no missteps as Prudat deftly weaves in and out of the characters. One minute she’s wide-eyed 10-year-old Yvette dreaming about visiting the pyramids in Egypt and in the next she’s a prim and prejudiced British schoolteacher teaching Yvette how to be a “proper Indian” for a school play.
Then she’s Yvette’s Chinese father, broken after his wife’s death. Facial expressions, body language, a change of voice are the tools Prudat uses very convincingly. The story takes us through the trials, heartbreaks and triumphs of Yvette’s young life as she encounters racism, confusion, death and drinking. The audience laughs and cries with her and silently cheers her on.
“I had a bit of fear on the first day of rehearsal,” said the talented actor who hails from Meadow Lake, Sask. and claims Cree, Saulteaux, French, Scandinavian and Metis roots.
“From there, it was getting into the heart and soul of each character to give them truth and depth. But Kenneth has written such an honest, beautiful work. He’s made it easy for me,” said Prudat.
She said she knew at the age of 12 that she wanted to be an actor. Her first semi-pro job was in the musical West Side Story when she was 16 and after that, there was no holding her back.
“This is the most challenging role I’ve ever had,” she said of Café Daughter. An actor’s job, she said, involves the constant exploration of the character you’re playing.
“With 12 characters,” she goes on, “it’s an even greater challenge, but I do love it.”
Playwright Williams based Café Daughter on the life of Dr. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck. In 1999, he became aware of her story when he was working for the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, researching nominees. One of the nominees was Dyck, an internationally-renowned doctor of neuroscience who is of Chinese and Cree descent with roots at George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan, the same community as Williams.
He was fascinated by her story, particularly when she said that when she was growing up she told him it was against the law for Chinese men to employ white women. That’s how First Nations women ended up working in Chinese-owned cafes, marrying their employers and losing their Indian status under the Indian Act. This law, enacted in 1912 to protect the morality of white women, remained in the books until the 1960s.
“I felt compelled to tell the story,” Williams said. “Lillian followed her mother’s commandment not to reveal that she was Cree until she was 36, the same age her mother was when she died,” he said. Dyck started to question what she was so afraid of and began exploring her Cree identity and getting to know her mother’s family.
Café Daughter had its world premiere in 2011 at the Gwaandak Theatre in Whitehorse, Yukon. Williams has been pleased with the reaction to the play although he acknowledges, “Lillian’s reaction was the most important. I was sitting next to her and she was very moved.”
Dyck did achieve great success academically. In 1981, she obtained a Ph.D. in Biological Psychiatry from the University of Saskatchewan. She was a full professor in the Neuropsychiatry Research Unit, Department of Psychiatry and Associate Dean, College of Graduate Studies & Research at the University of Saskatchewan.
In 2005, she became the first female First Nation Senator when she was appointed by Prime Minister Paul Martin. That same year she was honoured with two eagle feathers.
Café Daughter was presented by Native Earth Performing Arts at their Aki Studio Theatre in Toronto from Jan. 15 to 20. It’s currently on national tour and will be in Thunder Bay at the Magnus Theatre until Feb. 9, and then at the Courtyard Theatre in Kitchener from Feb. 14 to 16.