"My ancestors are storytellers. They've been storytellers for centuries, and that's what I call myself too," says 23-year-old Waawaate Fobister, whose first play, Agokwe, opens Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's 30th season. "I want to bring back stories from my traditions, my people."
Agokwe means "two spirited" and Fobister's piece is an exploration of homophobia in a small native community that would once have celebrated two-spirited people as an important part of society. Fobister himself grew up on an Ojibwe reservation in northwestern Ontario, and the story is based on events from his own life.
Agokwe is primarily a coming-out story, following two young men from neighbouring reserves as they take their first steps toward expressing the attraction they share. But it is also a commentary on how native communities have been changed by white intervention and the residential school system, and those communities' struggle to recapture what has been taken from them.
"There wasn't any homophobia before we arrived," says Ed Roy, the production's director, with whom Fobister has been working on the piece for more than a year. "The two-spirited person was acknowledged as a person of spiritual power and authority in the community. But when they were returned to the reservations after the schools they weren't connected to the land, to their traditions.
"In Agokwe, Nanabush [a trickster spirit popular in Ojibwe stories] explains how we're all trying to get back to this state of equilibrium within nature and ourselves," says Roy, "and we journey with these characters, Jake and Mike, star-crossed lovers who try to meet."
Returning to a place that has been lost is a theme that resonates through Agokwe. One character tells the audience about her recovery from alcoholism, and others overcome their prejudice by learning about the two-spirited tradition and what it once meant. In the end, Fobister thinks there is a hopeful message to be drawn from the piece.
"Jake gets knowledge about the agokwe, so he can take that away," says Fobister, "and Nanabush brings it out to the audience; he says, 'Now that you get it, tell everybody! Then we can all live together like a big happy family.'"
These issues are close to home for Fobister, who says it was important to him to share his experience of growing up queer in the isolated Grassy Narrows reserve near Kenora. "I wanted to touch on the homophobia that exists because I've personally experienced gaybashing on my rez, by another native guy," he says. "They beat me up, and put me in the hospital for three days. There were other times — just in Kenora I got attacked by some white people calling me 'Faggot, faggot, faggot,' and then they punched me."
Fobister is unique in his community. The first in his family to graduate high school, he left his reserve to study theatre at Humber College six years ago, a move he describes as "a big culture shock."
"I didn't have the skill of just going up to people and saying, 'Hi, my name is so-and-so,' because I grew up with everybody I knew," he says.
Agokwe started as a monologue that Fobister performed at Buddies' Queer Cab open mic two years ago. The piece grew up at Buddies, where it passed through every stage of the theatre's Queer Youth Arts Program.
"I went up on stage and told it just as a story, from my head," says Fobister of the piece's first incarnation at Queer Cab. "Then I wrote it out and I did it at Pride Cab, and from there they had a call out for applications for young creators to do a 30-minute solo piece, so I applied for that. I wanted to use my personal story alongside that of the native people fighting to protect their culture. Then I met up with [Roy] and he helped me dramaturge it."
Before getting involved at Buddies, the young theatre artist studied with Roy at Humber College. Since they began work on Agokwe together Fobister and Roy have formed a formidable creative team, despite their different backgrounds.
"Even though we both grew up gay, it's a different thing when you're talking to someone who's come from an isolated community," says Roy. "But we've both evolved into artists and when you're sharing that and sharing that space, that's a pretty good opportunity to have in life."
Under Roy's direction the piece has grown into a full-length show with six main characters, all of whom are played by Fobister.
"There's a poetry in the piece and it's a real human story, so for a director those are all exciting elements," says Roy of his decision to get involved. "It's a fresh voice."
With original music by Marc Nadjiwan, set by Andy Moro and costumes by Erika Iserhoff, a multicharacter one-man show is a challenging piece to direct, particularly scenes where those characters interact. "It can take up to three hours [rehearsal] to do a page and a half of dialogue, and we've got 26 pages," says Roy.
"The biggest challenge is to communicate to him how I see something, what I'm trying to point it toward. I can get the choreography in place, but then he has to make it his own. The challenge is to make sure he doesn't feel overwhelmed by what's on the page, so that he can be free in it. That's when I'll know we've hit the mark, when he can be free."
"When I first started I was so scared to use my voice," says Fobister. "Sometimes I'm still scared to use my voice. I just keep pushing myself."
Despite his initial terror of public speaking and performance, Fobister has acted in several productions including Death of a Chief, a native adaptation of Julius Caesar which ran at Buddies earlier this year. He also teaches theatre to native youth in northern Ontario.
"When I go back home, I find the storyteller in each person, so they can find their voice again," he says. "A lot of our native people are lost people, they're stuck between places and they've lost their voices."
Fobister likes to invoke a famous quote by Métis leader Louis Riel: "My people will sleep for one hundred years. When they awake, it will be the artists that give them back their spirit."
"That's why I call myself a storyteller," says Fobister, "and I want to bring that back into our lives, our future."
The Thu, Sep 25 opening at Buddies starts at 7pm in the cabaret with Ojibwe-style Speed Dating, a pre-show language crash course with Maya Chacaby. Grab a drink at the bar and learn some Ojibwe small talk. Following the show is Buddies' 30th-anniversary Season Kick-Off Bash hosted by Andrew Harwood, with performances by Keith Cole and Daddy K's Dance Academy, plus DJ Shane MacKinnon.