Darrell Dennis Talks About His Labor of Love, Now on Native Voices at the Autry

Darrell Dennis, the First Nations (Shuswap) actor who is the author and star of Native Voices at the Autry’s West Coast première of Tales of an Urban Indian, says he has seen a couple of other productions of his semi-​autobiographical play. But they always leave him with a weird sensation.

“When you live with a piece this long, it becomes so much a part of you,” says Dennis, who wrote a first draft of the play about 10 years ago. “It’s your words up there. You see someone else saying them and you think, ‘That’s not the play!’”He acknowledges that feeling must be the other side of the coin to what actors normally do — interpret characters written by other people, making them their own. But this search-​for-​identity piece has been evolving throughout its history.

“When I first wrote it, it was a whole lot longer,” he said. “We worked with it and got it down to about 85 minutes. And we’re still doing that, to a degree, getting down to its essence, cutting to the point.”

Dennis is best known for roles in Canadian TV shows Northwood, The Rez, and as the host of Bingo and a Movie. Besides Tales, he has had one other play produced, Trickster of Third Avenue East. He also wrote the short film Moccasin Flats, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and became a TV series of the same name. He was twice nominated for a Dora award, similar in Canada to a Tony, for Tales of an Urban Indian, and it was also recently made into a TV pilot for Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network. A feature film version is currently in development. The Native Voices production runs through March 28.

On stage, Dennis portrays 40 different characters, including Simon Douglas, the lead character, and Douglas’ grandmother. He said his favorite moments in the Native Voices production have been when other First Nations performers have been in the audience, including one day when a group of Native American teens came to see the play. He says he can see himself performing Tales into his later life, though he acknowledges that, as he gets older, touring gets tougher.

Even so, Dennis is like other minority actors in that he has to strike a balance between the eternal problem of typecasting and Hollywood’s concept of Pan-​Indianism — the mistaken idea that Native peoples are part of a monolithic, uniform Native culture that does not distinguish between, say, Cree, Shuswap, Arapaho or Navajo. He says he has seen the same thing happen to Asian actors who are friends of his.“Asians come from such a large area,” he says. “There are cultural variations.”

But Dennis believes minority actors bear the burden of taking control of the way their cultures are portrayed. “It’s up to the community to take responsibility for creating their own stories and for telling them,” he said. “It’s also about not being too afraid to lose the part just because you speak up.”

He says there are ways to make Native stories understandable to the outside world.

“It is possible do this in a way that mainstream people can relate to what you are saying,” he said. “In the show, I try to have humor that is universal.”

Dennis said it helps to be a veteran actor. After two years with the Second City National Touring Company, he co-​founded the comedy troupe Tonto’s Nephews. As a comic, he has performed for the Winnipeg Comedy Festival and the Just For Laughs Festival, and has made numerous appearances on CBC Radio and CBC Television. He was also selected to participate in the prestigious Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

Dennis is currently hosting the radio series Revision Quest for CBC Radio, which, like Tales, is about Aboriginal myth–busting. The show premiered on CBC Radio 1 in the spring of 2008.

This article is filed under:

Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.