‘I’m probably the silliest man you’ve ever met in your life," says Tomson Highway, kicking off a phone interview from his home in Gatineau, Que.
The subject comes up immediately because the 69-year-old Cree playwright from Brochet — about 350 kilometres north of Flin Flon — wants it known he does like a good laugh. And these days, laughter is a valuable commodity.
THEATRE PREVIEWClick to Expand
The (Post) Mistress
Music, book and lyrics by Tomson Highway
● 110 minutes
● Tickets: $20 at tickets.royalmtc.ca
Available from 7:30 p.m. on April 8 to April 25
In the Canadian theatre landscape, Highway is a pretty valuable commodity himself, establishing himself as the country’s most produced Indigenous playwright in 1986 with his first play, The Rez Sisters, a work that, he notes, has run for decades, almost non-stop. "It’s my Mouse Trap," he says, referring to the eternally running Agatha Christie drama.
Highway is a man of many talents, though, diffusing his output not just in plays, but in novels and children’s books, and certainly music. Highway studied both music and English at the University of Manitoba and the University of Western Ontario, and emerged an accomplished pianist and composer. (Not many playwrights have their own Soundcloud entries.)
That particular talent came into play with one of his most recent works, The (Post) Mistress, which will be available across Canada digitally April 8-25 through the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Set in the small town of Lovely, Ont., it focuses on village postmistress Marie-Louise Painchaud (played by Cree-Métis performer Krystle Pederson) as she reveals herself to be a cheeky conduit between the town’s citizens and the world beyond.
(The play encompasses a variety of musical styles, befitting Highway’s diversified tastes, from samba to Berlin cabaret, tango to Dixieland.
The initial inspiration came from a real post office, Highway says, near where he and his partner, Raymond Lalonde, lived in the countryside, about a hour south of Sudbury.
"We had a cottage away from the village, where this post office was, and the postmistress was a very funny woman; we really hit it off," he recalls. "I used to go there with no postal business to do just to hang out with her, just to laugh with her, because it was such a small post office that there would be nobody else there but her and me."
The post office happened to be across the street from a cemetery, and that proximity planted seeds in Highway’s imagination.
“Death is not traumatic for the person who dies, I think. It’s traumatic for the survivors. That’s who hurts.” – Tomson Highway
"The play is about death," he says. "I don’t consider death to be a negative experience, necessarily. I had a near-death experience once, and I have never felt peace of that intensity; the peace is total. You really do enter a state of nirvana and you sort of float off. It’s just heavenly.
"Death is not traumatic for the person who dies, I think. It’s traumatic for the survivors. That’s who hurts."
The play’s portrayal of death comes from Indigenous cosmology, he says, which has a circular design.
"In one system, (you) either go up or down, but (in the Indigenous belief system) you just go to another place on the circle and you’re still here. You haven’t gone to heaven or hell.
"Your body melts into the earth and it comes back as a blade of grass, or what comes out in the nose of your children, or their eyes, or the voice of my late brother. They’re still here.
"It’s a beautiful process and there’s less trauma in it," he says. "And that is what the play is based on. Humour is very much a part of that circle, so it is very funny."
Older people have lived in the shadow of death for the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Highway, who is being vaccinated on Thursday, says he has met that challenge with positivity.
"I’m 69 years old now. I’ve seen it all, I’ve done it all. I’ve had a fantastic life and I really don’t care if I go now, I really don’t," he says. "I’d be happy to slip away. To meet death is a positive experience."
And how would he like to be remembered?
"My first response to that is usually: what do I care? I won’t be here. It’s not my problem," he says with a chuckle. "I don’t do what I do to be remembered. But my final answer is: He came here to laugh. That’s why he was here… When you laugh a lot, everything falls in place. And I love making people laugh.
"I can’t help it. People are at their most beautiful when they laugh."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.