He’s come back to the rez to find his roots! She’s on her way to college! Will a dad and son ever make peace? Stay tuned for family squabbles, prophetic dreams, fried bread and a friendly neighbour!
It’s the set-up for a sit-com and that is entirely by design, though playwright Joelle Peters would call it a rom-com. It’s either or both. She whips out almost every genre trope you can think of for Niizh. Presented by Native Earth Performing Arts, this tale sees two young adults on a Southwestern reserve—Lenna Little (Theresa Cutknife) and Sam Thomas (Kole Durnford)—finding love, healing family and grounding themselves for the future.
If I were to limit myself to a single word, I’d say Niizh is, above all else, cozy. Nancy Perrin’s set gives us an open concept kitchen, living room and front deck of the Little family home. Snuggled right up against it is a neighbour’s porch. Aluminum siding and lawn chairs really sell the world. Costume designer Nishina Loft completes the rustic vibe with denim cut-offs, flannel and stained T-shirts.
Offer me just a second word, and I’d tell you Niizh is awkward. Peters’ dialogue is full of stilted rhythms, backtracking, sidestepping, and haphazard micro-flirtations. Director desirée leverenz mines almost every interaction for mundane domestic farce. Shoes never quite go on properly. People fumble their way through doors with their hands full. In a moment that really stands out to me: Durnford contorts himself into a sort of pretzel beside a lawn chair instead of sitting in it! It’s so gloriously uncomfortable and cumbersome in a way that feels like… life.
So much of the banter and physical antics seem like they should have an accompanying laugh-track, the absence of one had a surprisingly persausive, cumulative affect on me. Though I rarely found myself full-on laughing, I was absolutely mesmerized by the surreal spectacle of familiar sit-com beats landing gloriously askew in a tangible, imperfect world.
And this brings us to a third and final word that captures the essence of Niizh for me: endearing. From headbutts and cringy small talk to clasped hands and giggly intimacy, Cutknife and Durnford have great chemistry. As Lenna’s brother Jay, Aren Okemaysim has a bumbling, jovial charm that gives us a glimpse at the quirky, wise elder he’ll someday become. Jason McDonald is gruff and affable as their father, Billy. When Lenna tests his patience, his stern yet controlled tone gives her and the audience pause. In later scenes, his vulnerability and sadness provide greater dimension. PJ Prudat is a warm, dependable rock as Sam’s aunt and the Little’s next-door neighbour, KC.
The play has a naturalistic, folksy atmosphere broken up and enriched by dream sequences. Always set in motion by the opening of a specific cupboard door, choreography consultant Aria Evans has the performers twirl and swoop as if caught by a playful wind. Through Hailey Verbonac’s psychedelic lighting and projections, the walls of the Little family home become a vast phantasmagorical window through which we see abstracted representations of Lenna’s anxieties and aspirations.
Generational angst and nuanced family conflict give this a firm foundation while the script, design and performances keep it feeling loose and breezy. It’s a truly uplifting story about a community of empathetic people who care deeply for each other.
The transformative potential of dreams, intimate connection to ancestors and nature, sweetgrass and fish fry—familiar aspects of Indigenous culture enrich the formulaic trappings of the rom-com format. I think it’s meant to feel a little smoother, more consistently hilarious than it is, but I’m not sure it would have so firmly captured my imagination. It’s the uneasy, restless energy that is so transcendent. And I’ve only grown more fond of these clumsy, affectionate goofballs as they linger in my memory.