Review: Inner Elder (NativeEarth/Nightwood Theatre)

In the era of Truth and Reconciliation, Michelle Thrush’s one-woman show, Inner Elder, is an engaging breath of fresh air for anyone who hasn’t gotten around to reading the report yet. Written by Michelle Thrush and directed by Karen Hines, the hour-long show is part storytelling, part stand-up and very funny. Thrush effectively uses humour to tackle heavy subject matter such as anti-Indigenous racism and stereotypes, residential schools and land claims.

The storytelling is very autobiographical and my gut tells me there is very little embellishment of facts for dramatic effect. Believable and vivid details are transformed into comedy through Thrush’s writing and delivery.

This is a minimalistic, black box theatre style production. The set (designer Sandi Somers) consists of multicoloured chords, strung diagonally across one another from the ceiling to the floor of the stage. The effect was reminiscent of a static laser show at a concert or club. Oddly, the theatre was filled with dry ice or some sort of other theatrical smoke when my companion and I arrived. Other than worsening the air quality, it had no discernible impact or relevance to the show.

Despite this, we both enjoyed the show very much. The stories Thrush tells about growing up Indigenous in a predominantly white school and her career as an Gemini award-winning actor were poignant and impactful while maintaining the humorous tone piece.

On stage, Thrush transforms into her inner elder, a very brassy Kookum (Grandmother, Cree) who speaks her mind and is charmingly out of f***s. The second half of the show is stand-up in this persona.

The grandma stand-up act is really the triumph of the piece, with the storytelling functioning as a set-up. I’m not sure if Thrush based the character on her own Kookum or another elder she knows, but her portrayal of the Grandma is resonantly heartfelt and authentic. Of course the onstage wardrobe and make-up change helps, but the character is realized through Thrush’s expressive face and spry, geriatric body language. She also convincingly manipulates her voice to sound like a much older woman.

Inner Elder premiered in 2018 at One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo and will be heading to the National Arts Centre in 2020. Riotous laughter throughout the show and especially during Kookam’s stand-up act, was mirrored by pin-drop silence during the most piercing moments of the storytelling. The show is obviously a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t let the audience off the hook in terms of confronting the truth of the ongoing injustice that Indigenous communities face.  Inner Elder is a wonderful addition to the canon of Canadian one-woman plays and I hope it enjoys a long-performance tradition by Indigenous actors for diverse audiences. The themes are part of our heritage and the humour is on point.


Photo of Michelle Thrush by Ben Laird