Tiffany Ayalik returns to the NWT stage this fall with solo-show Cafe Daughter, where she alone explores identity, institutionalized racism and remarkable success in 1950s-era Saskatchewan.

photo courtesy of Ed Ellis
Cafe Daughter will make its NWT debut this fall, touring six communities including a Sept. 23 show on the NACC stage. Tiffany Ayalik carries the one-woman show forward in an exploration of identity, culture and racism in a story inspired by the remarkable life of Sen. Lillian Eva Quan Dyck.

Cafe Daughter tells the story of Yvette Wong, child of a Cree mother from Gordon First Nation and a Chinese father and cafe-owner. From a very young age Wong is asked by her mother to hide her Cree identity. Inspired by the remarkable life of neuroscientist and senator Lillian Eva Quan Dyck, the play is set in a time where white women are forbidden to work in cafes owned by Chinese men and where a mother would rather her daughter face racism for being Chinese than for being Indian.

Ayalik is returning to the stage from a very busy summer spent touring with Quantum Tangle, teaching at the Banff Centre for the Arts, hosting Wild Kitchen and writing a soon-to-be completed NACC production of NWT Indigenous women’s voices.

It won’t be the first time she has has taken on the role of Yvette Wong, performing in 2015 with Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre in Edmonton and this summer at the Ottawa National Arts Centre. Ayalik plays Yvette Wong, along with 12 other characters including ‘an old Cree man, an elderly Chinese man, various aunties, bullies, racists’ in her first solo show.

“This is the only one woman show that I’m doing but it definitely doesn’t feel like a one woman show because there’s constantly 12 voices in my head,” she said, breaking into laughter. “It’s a wonderful challenge as an actor because I have to, in an instant, drop into a completely different person’s body and voice and mannerisms and everything on top of all the lines that I’m saying. I know that I’ve really grown as an actor doing this show because it asks so much of you.”

Ayalik comes from what she calls a blended background, growing up with one Inuk parent and one non-Indigenous parent. Often faced with the question of ‘what are you?’ and at times overt racism in the form of slurs and grafitti, Ayalik said she can relate despite the gulf in time between her and her character.

“It gives you the opportunity to see and to say OK, here’s where we were in the 50s or the 60s, and then we get to ask ourselves ‘has anything changed?’,” she said. “That’s a very interesting mirror that period pieces give audiences.”

The play explores universal questions of identity, belonging and coming of age while also unearthing previously untold stories of Canada’s indigenous peoples and immigrants.

Marie Coderre, executive and artistic director at NACC, said the play speaks volumes about the larger story of Canada and the changes happening to indigenous communities in the 1950s including shifts from a traditional way of life to a non-Indigenous one.

Both Coderre and Ayalik agree that while the play touches on heavy topics, it is also full of humour.

“It’s very funny, there’s a lot of really funny moments but it also takes the opportunity to delve into deep-seated racism and how it was affecting her in many different areas of (Wong’s) life. She’s a very loveable character and we get to see the childhood resilience and the sparkle of her despite the times,” Ayalik said.

Written by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, Cafe Daughter had its first run in 2011 to Dawson City, Whitehorse and five rural Yukon communities.

This fall will be its first run in the NWT. The production will start in Fort Smith on Sept. 18, then on to Norman Wells Sept. 19, Inuvik Sept. 21, Yellowknife Sept. 23, Fort Simpson Sept. 25 and Hay River Sept. 27.

Staging a production across the territory is prohibitively expensive, but Coderre said it is important to give work to talents from the North so they can stay and work in the territory, and to allow communities to discover their work.