One-woman play featuring P.A. actor explores racism

Matt Gardner
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A young actor with local roots is taking on the controversial subject of historical Canadian racism in a new stage production.

Actor and former Prince Albert resident PJ Prudat is the star of Café Daughter, a one-woman play written by Kenneth T. Williams about a girl of mixed Cree and Chinese descent growing up in the 1950s and '60s. Prudat plays twelve different roles in the production, which is currently on tour in Ontario.

Scripted by award-winning Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, Café Daughter is loosely based on the life of Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, a former neuroscientist and current Canadian senator of mixed Cree and Chinese heritage who was one of the first Aboriginal women to pursue an academic career in science.

Rising thespian PJ Prudat, who began her acting career in Prince Albert, portrays the Dyck-inspired central character Yvette Wong as well as 11 other roles in the play.

“It doesn’t follow (Dyck’s) story completely,” Prudat said. “It becomes more of a fictionalized version of it, but she’s really the jumping-off point. Her battle’s set back in the ’50s and ’60s and dealing with racism.”

Café Daughter is currently touring in Ontario and will hit Vancouver at the end of its six-week run. Although Prudat’s rendition, co-produced by Native Earth Performing Arts and the Gwaandak Theatre Society, will not be coming to Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company in Saskatoon is planning its own production of the play in April.

Williams, also a journalist, was inspired to pen Café Daughter after his cousin Dyck received a lifetime achievement award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

In his writeup of the event, Williams explored how racist legislation in Saskatchewan ironically helped Dyck’s mother and father meet and fall in love.

“Back in the day, in the early part of the 1900s, there was a law that the government had created where Chinese restaurant owners, it was illegal for them to hire Caucasian women,” Prudat explained.

“The only other women that could work in those restaurants were of First Nations ancestry, and so that’s actually how her parents met was through this very racist (legislation), actually. Lillian herself, her mother had made her swear at the time back in the ’50s that she wouldn’t tell anyone that she was Cree, because her mother felt that it would get her further along given the time frame.”

Early on in the play, the character Yvette -- despite her obvious intelligence -- is placed in a slow learners’ class because of her skin colour. Subsequent acts detail her struggle over many years to overcome these obstacles and achieve her dreams.

Besides Yvette, Prudat also plays Yvette’s Cree mother, aunt and grandfather, her Chinese father, a school bully, the school principal, an ignorant and uninformed teacher, a male doctor, and a charming and charismatic 16-year-old Mi’kmaq girl who befriends the protagonist.

Her mother had made her swear at the time back in the ’50s that she wouldn’t tell anyone that she was Cree. PJ Prudat

Playing such a wide range of characters would be a test for any actor, but Prudat has found subtle ways to distinguish them for the audience.

“Kenneth has painted a beautifully vivid script and the characters are very distinguishable,” she said. “What I’ve found really works for me is to differentiate through physicality and through voice. There are several characters that have different accents as well -- the Cree accent or the Chinese accent. I’ve also thrown in a little bit of British for one of the teachers …

“I really try to use male components, female components, childlike behavior, and it’s a different sense of energy especially for the young Mi’kmaq girl who’s 16 versus Yvette, because they have quite a lengthy amount of time in the second act and so the differences between them need to be pretty obvious.

“I’ve actually had a lot of fun playing with those and really heightening each character in that. It’s been a real joy actually to work on them. It has been a challenge of course in many ways, and yet the script allows for such a fluidity in finding these moments and finding the beats and taking time to be in the moment for each character and respond authentically with each character.”

Originally from Meadow Lake, Prudat first began acting in P.A. while a student at Carlton Comprehensive High School and performed with Broadway North. She went on to study drama at the University of Saskatchewan and eventually completed her B.A. at the University of Alberta with a minor in anthropology.

Following the current tour of Café Daughter, Prudat -- who lives in Toronto -- plans to appear in a play called The Blue Planet with the Young People’s Theatre company.

While Saskatchewan audiences will not be able to see Prudat in Café Daughter, she hopes that regional theatregoers will take a look at the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company’s production in April.

“It’s a really remarkable story,” she said. “I’m so proud of this piece and it’s really accessible to so many different people and so many children, so many adults. People from … all walks of life have just been so gracious with their thoughts and feelings on it.”

Organizations: Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company, Prince Albert, Gwaandak Theatre Society National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation First Nations Carlton Comprehensive High School University of Saskatchewan University of Alberta

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Ontario, Vancouver Saskatoon Meadow Lake Broadway North Toronto Young People

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