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'Niizh' by Joelle Peters

Produced by Native Earth and onstage at Aki Studio in the Daniels' Spectrum

Produced by Native Earth and onstage at Aki Studio in the Daniels' Spectrum

Joe Szekeres

‘Niizh’ becomes an important play for young audiences to see. We need them to continue working in and enjoying the theatre.

Set on a reserve in Southwestern Ontario, ‘Niizh’ (‘two’ according to the Ojibway dictionary) follows Lenna Little (Theresa Cutknife) who prepares to attend Sheridan College in the fall and leave home for the first time. In planning to do so, Lenna encounters some challenges along the way. There is her brother Jay (Aren Okemaysim) whom Leena is sometimes having to bail out of trouble or referee between him and their father. Lenna and Jay’s divorced and often demanding father, Billy (Jason McDonald), runs a store in town. Lenna is continually expected to help at the store while Jay is not. Jay and his father are hot and cold in their relationship. Sometimes son has worked there and sometimes he has been suspended from the store. Jay is also in and out of the house a great deal on account of his relationship with his father.

Next-door neighbour KC Thomas (PJ Prudat) has played an important role in the Little family's lives. She helped to raise Lenna and Jay when their mother moved out on their father before the divorce. KC has also helped Billy out in the kitchen when necessary. KC’s nephew Sam Thomas (Kole Durnford) enters into this mixture. Sam just got in the car to visit his aunt who said he could visit any time he wished. Sam had an argument with his mother, and the young lad felt he had to get away for a while.

The Native Earth website bills ‘Niizh’ as a coming-of-age comedy. Within the script, the Indigenous culture figures prominently. There is a grounded connection to “guidance from Creator that is funnelled through the idea of intuition” as director desirée leverenz writes in her director’s programme note. Aria Evans choreographs some of the characters spinning slowly like whirling dervishes and reaching out amid Hailey Verbonac’s colourful videography piqued my attention.

Does the play work in gelling all these above-mentioned elements together?

I wouldn’t call ‘Niizh’ a laugh-out-loud Indigenous rom-com as playwright Joelle Peters calls it in the programme note. For the most part, the play does work as the storyline is clear. There are some uneven plot holes in the script and a couple of tentatively hesitant opening night performances. As a retired secondary school teacher-librarian, however, I could overlook all this. Sometimes, for comedy to work, one must suspend disbelief willingly and I chose to do so.

There is a reference in the script to playing Radio Bingo. We never see the characters playing Bingo. On this opening night, we played Bingo before the show began, but I don’t think that was necessary. For a student-invited audience, yes, it would work, but not for an evening crowd. I liked Jenna Green’s selection of First Nations artists during the preshow music (thank you Shazam for allowing me to see the song titles).

Nancy Perrin’s set design sharply captures the look of a living room and kitchen sadly in need of updating. Given the dynamics of this family, redecorating is not at the top of the priority list. Nishina Loft’s costume designs replicate these characters are credible, real people who don’t put on airs to impress anyone.

One of the highlights of the production is the care taken in Aria Evans’ precise choreography. After a day to think further about it, I finally had that aha/epiphany moment. Just as Christians continue to ground themselves daily in their love of Christ, Peters’ characters continue to ground themselves in their connection to the space they know and those who have all been lovingly made and brought together by Creator. Even in some of the dramatic moments, Peters’ script never lets go of the fact that Creator is there no matter what.

Director desirée leverenz cares about the characters in this story. She succeeds in showcasing real people who have dreams and who want good things for themselves and for others. Sometimes, these characters do not easily reveal their true feelings for others out of shame, embarrassment, or fear.

Theresa Cutknife offers a true-to-life and lovely performance as Lenna. The blossoming relationship between her and Sam is sweet without being sickening. As Sam, Kole Durnford is an astute listener in each scene and responds accordingly. The moment when he is grilled by Lenna’s father and brother in meeting them for the first time made me laugh out loud. I’m sure we’ve all been there before in meeting someone and getting grilled/roasted for whatever reason.

PJ Prudat’s KC is that wise adult figure whom I’m sure we’ve all had at one point in our lives. Prudat delivers a delicious touch of the sassy especially when she announces at the top of the show she is going on a date. KC is that protective ‘mama bear’ to whom Lenna so often turned when the other maternal figure left.

Aren Okemaysim and Jason McDonald are somewhat hesitant in revealing their emotions as father and son. When they do connect with each other at the odd time, the tension simmers. Okemaysim’s Jay does show his slick side when he tries to impress others but there are moments when it comes across as forced. McDonald’s stature and height made me pay close attention to him each time he appeared on stage. The moment when he orders Lenna back to the car to get the magazines is strong. But I wanted to see more of that tension between father and son.

Final Comments: I hope Native Earth has reached out to offer some school performances. Kudos to Peters for drawing inspiration from the YA novels she read to write the play. ‘Niizh’ appeals to that young adult audience who have no trouble suspending disbelief if something interests them.

Parents, if schools do not offer a chance to see the show, I hope you will take the youth in your family to see the show.

Running time: approximately 100 minutes with no intermission.

‘Niizh’ runs to April 30 in the Aki Studio of the Daniels’ Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East. For tickets, visit

NIIZH by Joelle Peters
Produced by Native Earth
Directed by desirée leverenz
Head Technician: Adam Bromley
Stage Manager: Jessica Campbell-Maracle
Set Designer: Nancy Perrin
Props: Sarah Yuen
Lighting and Projections Designer: Hailey Verbonac
Sound Designer: Jenna Geen
Costume Designer: Nishina Loft
Videography: Bawaadan Collective

Performers: Theresa Cutknife, Kole Durnford, Jason McDonald, Aren Okemaysim, PJ Prudat

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