Tales of an Urban Indian

Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson, Auckland

11/01/2024 - 14/01/2024

Production Details

By Darrell Dennis
Directed by Herbie Barnes

Talk Is Free Theatre

Staged entirely on a moving bus, Darrell Dennis’s play is about a contemporary Indigenous man who grows up on both the reserve and in “big-city” Vancouver. This show conjures up many characters that appear in Simon’s life, all played by one actor.

A perennial favourite of Canada’s Talk Is Free Theatre, Tales of An Urban Indian has played over 500 performances in locations across Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and Suriname.

This event starts at Te Pou Theatre, Corban Estate Arts Centre. From there, audience members will board a bus, travel with the performer for the duration of the play, and return to Te Pou Theatre.

Talk Is Free Theatre is an award-winning theatre company based just north of Toronto in Barrie, Canada, and is best known for its over 20-year history of wowing audiences with new creations, unexpected reimaginings of established works, and neglected classics at home and around the globe.
This production was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.

Ticketing at iTicket: Tales of an Urban Indian (iticket.co.nz)

Performer - Nolan Moberly
Stage Manager - Dean Deffett

Site-specific/site-sympathetic , Solo , Theatre ,

90 minutes

'Tales of an Urban Indian' superbly conceived, stunningly written, and uncompromising in its delivery.

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 12th Jan 2024

Tales of an Urban Indian is one of those extraordinary experiences that challenges every belief you might have that you know a thing or six about this theatre lark while, at the same time, affirming every belief you might have that the late Sir Peter Brook got it right all those years ago.

Sir Peter defined the performance experience in his seminal 1969 text The Empty Space as being ‘a man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’. While still totally valid, we’ve since improved Brook’s model by updating the language and letting the girls play too.

Snarky gendered comments aside, Brook’s philosophy is never more effectively exemplified than in this Talk is Free Theatre production of Darrell Dennis’s 2009 classic Canadian solo work Tales of an Urban Indian where the empty space is a moving bus, where the bus is itself a character, where the journey is sublimely plotted with stops that add meaning even here in the antipodes on a stinking hot Thursday afternoon, where a feared happy ending is exquisitely and painfully denied, and the experience so intricately off-putting that tears flow readily and the journey home in silence says it all. No escaping by sitting in the dark and letting it all flow over you, this is visceral, undeniable, public, at times uncomfortable, organic, yet filled with the possibility of hope, but not quite. In truth, this gall’d jade had her withers well and truly wrung and in the most strangely satisfying way imaginable.

But I get ahead of myself. You might want to know just what I’m talking about. I would if I were you.

Talk is Free Theatre is an independent company based about an hour’s drive north of Toronto in Barrie, Ontario. They’ve been brought to Aotearoa by a unique consortium of the Talk is Free group, Eleanor Strathern’s brilliant Poneke-based production company ‘A Mulled Whine’, Te Pou Theatre, the kaupapa Māori performing arts venue located on the grounds of Corban Estate Arts Centre, the Corban Estate Arts Centre itself, and it’s all made practically possible through the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council and via a damn fine vision of a worldwide indigenous theatre movement. Success in the arts is so often the result of getting the right people in the right room at the right time, sharing a vision, winding them up, and letting them go, and this seems to have happened in this case. A unifying factor would seem to be the relative youth of the participants and the extraordinary connections they’ve each already made with like-minded others across the planet. They’re a veritable who’s who of what’s possible in a sunlit future and should be nurtured.

Hard to advocate for this when we currently have a government that won’t be listening to indigenous voices, nor will it want to accommodate any talk of increased funding to the arts any time soon.

It’s worth noting that for over 20 years, Talk is Free Theatre has specialized in ‘unexpected, drastic re-imaginings of established works, neglected classics, and new creations. They develop and produce a wide range of theatre from the periphery of the main, story-driven musicals and new types of site-specific, immersive creation. While producing full seasons at home in Barrie, touring immersive productions has become a mainstay for Talk is Free Theatre, having already appeared on three continents outside North America. Touring also provides their artists with a much more enlightened view of the world.’ Talk is Free say they are happy to have been welcomed to Aotearoa New Zealand to share a little piece of Canada with us, and we’re more than happy to have them visit and to leave behind a kete full to the brim with their inspiration and their special global vision of indigeneity. Mauri ora!

Tales of an Urban Indian is the story of Simon Douglas, ‘an Indigenous man born of one culture and thrust into another.’ Throughout his narrative we experience, in the most intimate fashion, the highs and lows of his life’s journey, beginning with the trauma of going through the Canadian Indian Residential School system. We have learned in recent years that these residential schools were an imperialist attempt by the Canadian government to assimilate Indigenous peoples into adopting European worldviews and cultural practices and we have begun to understand the damage that this has done to generation after generation of Indigenous Canadian citizens and which has certainly been mirrored here in Aotearoa – this may sound familiar to you even if many of our blinkered politicians have yet to catch on, and sadly may never catch on, to its contemporary relevance.

These schools were used to introduce the idea of state land ownership, land that, from the government’s point of view, Indigenous people no longer, and possibly never, owned. Echoes of Bastion Point, the Raglan Golf Course, Te Rōpū o te Matakite land march, Parihaka, and countless other land battles resonate as I take on board Simon’s narrative and relate it to my own life. While he deals with the complexities of generational trauma, alcoholism, addiction, and the agony of being trapped in an ongoing ‘I told you so’ stereotype of dependency in all its angry shades, his is, still, ultimately a story of potential healing, new learning, and hope, the moving story of a man who is at last discovering who he is while still living in a society that determined decades before his birth that there would be no equitable place for him on his own ancestral land. Yes, there is hope for Simon, but we are provided with no rose-tinted spectacles and given no easy way out.

It may all happen for Simon, but just as equally it still may not.

Personally, I’m glad that such honest work ends with some sense of hope, but equally pleased that the writer avoids the trap of resorting to the glib, the inane, and the facile simply to round out his story.

Tales of an Urban Indian is the semi-autobiographical brainchild of accomplished playwright Darrell Dennis and is directed by Herbie Barnes. It has been a Talk is Free Theatre company staple since 2009 and a good number of fine young actors have played the character of Simon Douglas so this iteration has a satisfying lived-in feel which I’m sure helps audiences who, in the main, will never have experienced a performance on a moving bus before let alone one of such humour, immediacy and anguish. Even before making the arguably courageous decision to step onto the bus and into this new, bright world of performance, I had all these dumb questions buzzing in my brain like ‘will I be able to see properly’, ‘what if I can’t hear’, ‘what if he sits next to me’, ‘what if I’m expected to engage’, ‘where can I hide if I don’t like it’ and you may be posing the same questions to yourself. If you’re like me, these questions might be enough to make you stay home and watch twenty-year-old re-runs of ‘Midsomer Murders’ in preference.

Well don’t. Just don’t.

Simon uses the whole bus with the skill of an acrobat, and you’ll see all you need to see. There’s an excellent sound system deftly operated by your charming Stage Manager Dean Deffett. Dean has a Bachelor of Musical Theatre Performance from Sheridan College, and he really knows what he’s about. He sits in the cross seats at the front of the bus nursing a speaker on the seat behind him and playing on his phone. He’s all efficiency and skill, and you will hear everything you need to hear. Health and Safety is covered as Dean is in touch with the driver at all times. After what seems an age, I realise that Dean has a script on his lap and that, rather than playing Pokemon Go on his phone, he’s actually operating the sound from there. For a moment I feel like a useless ancient Luddite but the narrative moves on and so do I.

Directly behind the driver, also on the cross seats, sits Te Pou Production Assistant Teiaro Taikato (Ngati Whakaue, Tauranga Moana, Ngati Raukawa). Teiaro has a degree majoring in event management and criminology and, in my view, has the brightest future of any young artist in Aotearoa. Teiaro is the future, so watch this space.

All this means, of course, is that you won’t be alone, so put aside your questions and your anxiety, go online, book your ticket, and your eyes will be opened to a theatre form that you never thought was possible. Do it now because it’s quite a short season and buses have limited seating.

Oh yes, who plays Simon Douglas?

It says a lot about actor Nolan Moberly that he fits the role of Simon Douglas to a tee even on our classy, if somewhat idiosyncratic, air-conditioned Metro bus. Under different circumstances he would be that irritating passenger who wanders about with a boombox, forever changing seats, and who never stops talking. Having an actor exuding such confidence in his craft and on top of his essential comic gifts is exactly what’s needed and it’s exactly what we get. Nolan Moberly is all quality. He’s life-affirmingly funny, as real as necessary, as tenacious and insistent in making his bad choices as he is in relentlessly loving his life, and he avoids victimhood in ways that allow us to see the bigger picture of his world as an Indigenous man in a systemically wrecked society. It’s very smart stuff.

He plays every character in his life – I lost count – in nuanced ways that allow us to see them for what and who they are without ever resorting to caricature which allows us time to privately process them while he moves ever on. It’s intense, often ugly, always funny but in so many different ways, and he shamelessly presents Simon the Dickhead in a such a manner that we never lose faith in him and always, always, care about, and for, him. It felt for a while that there was a happy ending coming but Dennis, Barnes, and Moberly are too smart for that and hit the realism button at just the right moment. Hope, maybe, but there’s still much work to do to rescue our hero.

Did I say that Moberly is outstanding? I did? Good, because he’s perfection in ways that enable us to transcend the bus and to fully believe in his story. In my case he took me to places in my own life that I’d not thought of for years, that I would most certainly prefer to forget, and hot tears of recognition and acceptance flowed.

Nolan Moberly is not only supremely talented he’s also immensely likeable which is important in this role, and yes, he’s easy on the eyes too. Sexist, I guess, but also textually relevant. He’ll get the joke. So will you if you choose to board the bus.

It’s great work, superbly conceived, stunningly written, and uncompromising in its delivery. It’s a rare opportunity to see an exciting and reputable international company whose indigeneity is so close to our own, and to experience a work performed by a young actor at the absolute top of his game.

See it, you’ll never view public transport the same again – ever.

Audience care: Tales of an Urban Indian includes references to suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.


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