Created and Performed by Sheldon Elter
Directed by Ron Jenkins
A Native Earth Performing Arts Presentation at the Aki Studio
Toronto. January 26-February 5, 2017
Born in a small, northern Alberta town, Sheldon Elter is not everyone’s Metis. Not does he try to be. This exceptionally talented Canadian (winner of two Sterling Awards and numerous other nominations; core member of the ukulele rock band, The Be Arthurs; stand-up comedian; and writer/star/co-executive producer for APTN’s CAUTION: May Contain Nuts and Delmer and Marta) is evidently a triple or even a quadruple threat in the performing arts. So, when he begins with crude, rapid-fire politically incorrect stereotypical jokes about native Indians, it is only to segue into vehement truth-telling. The self-inflicted jokes are no joke; they are really this country’s subversive way of unacknowledging its own cultural racism. His racial ethnicity is hybrid, making him part native, part white, and therefore he is a reservoir of contesting passions. His ninety-minute solo performance piece is an intense, semi-autobiographical narrative about his quest to free himself from a destructive cycle. Originally an eight-minute piece devised for the NextFest emerging artist festival in Edmonton in 2000. After graduating from the Grant MacEwan College’s Theatre Arts Programme, he expanded the show into a full-length piece in collaboration with Ken Brown, his instructor and mentor. Metis Mutt has now played various Canadian cities and New Zealand, and should be part of every major Canadian theatre’s season in some manner.
Huskily striking, Elter jumps back and forth in time and place, and plays an entire list of aunts, uncles, parents, brothers, and sisters in the course of his non-fictionalized narrative. Admitting that he has been called a “prairie nigger” and a “bush nigger,” he spares no one—least of all himself—in his exposure of some of the most sordid qualities of native life in general and his personal life in particular. “Women are sacred. We give great respect to Mother Earth,” he intones, and then proceeds to dramatize spousal abuse, exploitation, rape, and alcoholism. It is a tale as flashback retrospection. His father Sonny, his mother Patsy, his young, terrified brother Derek, cousin Kevin, and assorted other figures, such as Mrs. Hamelin and Bill the Medicine Man are all brought to vivid life with his multi-vocal impersonations. In fact, it is his voice and presence that bring a special authenticity to his cyclical tale, one that begins and ends with memories of his violently alcoholic father who visited physical, emotional, and psychological torment on his entire family. Sonny Elter died on New Year’s Day, 1999, in eerie circumstances, and this started his son’s downward spiral. Booze, hard drugs, rootlessness, depression, convulsions, suicide attempts, all create a hard-edged, grainy texture for the show that, nevertheless, manages to have flashes of sharp parody as Elter (with his guitar) proceeds from a blues parody and a Metis version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to a cutting vocal satire on the Lone Ranger through the voice of Tonto.
All jokes aside, this is a relentlessly honest tale that carries us into the heart of native visions, spiritual wisdom, and mystery. At the end, Elter returns to his father, now dead, to pay him tribute, express his own pained love, and earn some form of purgation. “He had a short, bitter life,” he summarizes. “I intend to do better.” He already has to a considerable degree.