Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Waawaate Fobister reclaims First Nations two-spirited traditions

Playwright and actor brings award-winning play to Halifax Pride celebrations

By Lindsay Raining Bird, for CBC News

Pride Week tends to boast a mantra of inclusion with a heavy focus on partying. But for some native people, even the expanding LGBTQIA acronym still can’t define them.

It's one reason why Waawaate Fobister, the Ojibwe playwright, actor and public speaker from Grassy Narrows, Ont., is in the process of reclaiming two-spirted First Nations stories and traditions through his award winning play Agokwe.

"Toronto has a lot of things that are geared to the white experience, I guess. We have native gatherings too [but] for me, I don’t participate in the huge parties," said Fobister by phone after rehearsal. "It's just about spending time with those who mean a lot to me."

Fobister was 18 when he realized he was two-spirited — an identification that represents a person who houses both male and female spirits within — and recognized the path he needed to take with his life.

"I'm a storyteller, that's what I call myself," said Fobister. "The history is [two-spirited people] had roles and responsibilities for the community. Everyone was given a role or they chose a role to help out the community.

"So my job as a two-spirited person is to be a storyteller and tell these stories. In the mainstream ... I talk about two-spirited, native culture all our things that have been lost — language, ceremonies, belief systems, society — all those sorts of things,” he says.

"In this play I bring it back a bit."

'It's exhausting as a performer'

Agokwe is a highly personal and partly autobiographical one-man show about Fobister’s first interaction with another young gay native — a romantic moment of locked eyes underscored by the sheer terror of attraction.

Later, they would reconnect for a time, but tragically the story ends in suicide — a cathartic experience that Fobister relives to an extent in every performance.

"I made it fictionalized just enough so that I can detach myself a little bit from it," he said, "The boy ... because he actually passed away, so I honour him and my grandmother who passed away this year," he said.

"The crying parts in the play, they really just hit me. It's exhausting as a performer."

Juggling six characters every night, both male and female, Fobister wins over the audience.

A performance on reserve for boisterous native youth stands out to him as a show that could have gone either way.

"I didn’t know how they would take it. There were jock boys sitting in the front row, [with an] ‘entertain me’ bullyish attitude towards me, but after they were shaking my hand ‘Oh Bro, that was a ... good show.'"

Even an older, tight-laced white conservative crowd found the heart beneath dialogue that initially shocked them. They were "a quieter audience," says Fobister, but "within 10 minutes, they get intrigued and by the end of the play they're on their feet, standing ovation."

But, it’s when he’s pandering to his peers that Fobister truly shines. During a sold-out crowd at a conference of two-spirited and trans people, he had to inject pauses into lines just to be heard over the delighted crowd.

"It was insane," he remembers.

"It was the biggest roar of laughter because it was for them, right?"

With such an outpouring of appreciation from all sides, it’s no surprise that Agokwe took home six Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including Outstanding New Play, in 2009.

Despite all that, Fobister won’t call himself a role model, although he does a lot to inspire native youth.

“I don’t like the term, but I present what I have, the story that I have and share accomplishments that I have, experiences that I have, and they get inspired," he said.

"The bottom line is that I need to tell the story because I feel there is an important message in there and [it] can save young lives and inspire."

Catch Waawaate Fobister in Agokwe during the Queer Acts Theatre Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 17-20, at the Bus Stop Theatre,

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