It’s hard to tell you to go see Huff at Summerhall’s CanadaHub, but I absolutely must. Playwright and solo performer Cliff Cardinal gives a virtuosic performance that brings painful life to facts and figures that are relatively unknown and, for the more privileged among us, almost unfathomable. It’s one thing to hear that the suicide rate for First Nations youth is five times the national Canadian average. It’s another thing to watch a fellow audience member struggle to tear off a Ziploc bag duct-taped over a man’s head. It’s one thing to know that solvent abuse is an epidemic among children and teenagers on reservations, and another to hear a convincingly prepubescent voice explain to you what it’s like to huff gasoline.
It’s hard to tell you to go see Huff, but I absolutely must.
It’s a rare one-man show that successfully conjures quite so many fully drawn characters. Cardinal plays Wind, the man explaining why he had a Ziploc bag taped over his head in a suicide attempt, as a young teenager, as well as his prepubescent younger brother, his older brother Charles, who is affected by Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, and a cast of adults and animals surrounding them. The brothers have never known life without poverty, substance abuse, and neglect, and so accept the situation as given. It’s eerie, and painful, to hear a child’s chirpy voice nag an adult until given a bottle of Lysol or explain the rules of “the pass out game,” which consists of pressing someone’s windpipe until they pass out, and then when they wake up again, it’s your turn. “If your partner’s hands are too small,” Wind explains, “or if you’re by yourself, you can use a belt!” Anything is better than the cold reality around them.
Cardinal’s voices and physicalities for each character are distinct and convincing. The stage is spare but every object on it serves many purposes, transforming in his hands or framing a new character or setting. The lighting and the sound draw the lines of various locations with an effective minimalism. Cardinal’s writing is unflinching, never cutting off a moment too soon or letting it linger for too long. His characters suffer and keep going, suffer and keep going, and in that impossible drive towards life is the “Indigenous resilience” that the publicity promises. It isn’t pretty, but it’s there.
This isn’t a play to squeeze into a packed Fringe day – it carries content warnings for suicide, substance abuse, child abuse and child sexual abuse, and I recommend at minimum a half an hour to walk it off and process. But equally, missing it would be a huge mistake. It is a story that needs telling, that bears witness to a legacy of colonialism with which we must all be confronted.