Watching Lila’s eyes, those of a proud ex-army Blackfoot woman, is like looking into the window of her soul.
There’s life and devastation in them. Hurt and anger. Sometimes joy and nostalgia, and a certain weariness, as if she’s been through hell and back. Add to that the ticks in her facial expressions, the way she moves around the space, how she opens up a beer can.
When she opens her mouth, her voice rising and falling with stories brimming with life, it’s difficult to separate the woman from her characters.
This is Deer Woman, a one-woman show created by Canadian Indigenous activist arts company ARTICLE 11 and performed by the inimitable Cherish Violet Blood in a gutsy, poignant performance.
Striking that balance between the light and the dark in any show is hard, and this task is particularly made difficult in this show’s dire centrepiece subject. On the surface, it’s about Lila’s taking vengeance on her sister’s killer, but it unravels into something more pulsing with life, purpose and earth-shattering questions.
The hushed silence before a show begins is always golden, but when you walk into Deer Woman, the show, in a way, has already started before the house lights have dimmed.
Two screens depict what looks like a night vision footage of deer nibbling grass. In front of it, a camera is set up, ready to project Lila up on those screens. The analogy is there: this woman – part deer, part human – speaks to us from inside a tent in the depths of a forest. Against the sounds of peaceful chirping crickets, she’s ready to subvert expectations, and to bare herself emotionally.
Lila speaks to the camera as if it’s a video-diary, but she’s really speaking to us. When she opens up her world through words, the distance between us seems to shrink, and the relationship we have with her grows.
The stories she tells us (impeccably and intimately written by Tara Beagan) weave anecdotes that transport you straight into her bedroom she shares with her sister, Pamela ‘Hammy’; to the tea-cup ride at the fairground; to the forest where she goes deer-hunting for the first time with her Dad and sister.
Blood’s voice brings to life each of her family members, so that we understand their exuberances and their flaws, their manner of speaking and idiosyncratic personalities. These are and were real people that exist in flesh and blood, and you feel her love for them.
It all accumulates to a confronting final few minutes. The audience’s laughter, once enthusiastic, turns uncomfortable. And yet, because we have gone through this passage of time with Lila (it’s only 90 minutes, but it feels like a lifetime), we understand why she has to take control of the narrative.
During the show, Lila expresses her exasperation around Indigenous “pain porn”, and puts a critical lens on the types of theatre we consume and how we respond to them, and how a primarily white audience moves onto the next thing in a moment’s time. The blistering figures of Indigenous women in Canada missing or murdered – reports largely ignored by the Canadian government – is there to stay, and it’s not going away like a TV channel, easily changed by a remote button switch.
“Do you see my antlers?”, Lila asks the audience. She’s referring to her own strength, and the bulletproof shield she has become to endure the worst of it all. The claps of an opening night audience during the curtain call go on long after Cherish Violet Blood has left the stage. The answer to Lila’s question is loud and clear.
We see them, and we see her.