We are accustomed to hearing The Land Acknowledgement before every concert, sporting event, and arts event in the city. The words serve as reminders of the past, help us to understand our present space, and offer hope in moving forward together with meaning and compassion.

Imagine heading into a night at the theatre to see As You Like It — one of the most popular Shakespeare plays. You arrive at the theatre and are seated comfortably waiting the play to start. One of the performers approaches the stage and proceeds with The Land Acknowledgement. But wait, it’s different this time. The performer continues beyond a few minutes.  And it keeps going. It’s become obvious that this wasn’t the show you expected. It’s much more.

Indigenous writer, creator and performer, Cliff Cardinal (Huff, Cliff Cardinal’s CBC Special)– did just that in the Fall of 2021 at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto. In an inquisitive and unique collaboration with the theatre’s Artistic Director Chris Abraham, the show was not what the audience expected.  Titled William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, a radical retelling caused a frenzy in Toronto’s theatre scene.

This was what audiences read on the Crow’s Theatre site…

“From Cliff Cardinal, creator of Huff, Stitch, and CBC Special, comes a new realization of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Known for his cutting humour, Cardinal’s take on the Bard’s classic brings renewed energy to this twisting comedy about the trials of love and mistaken identity in the lush Forest of Arden. Cardinal’s unpredictability is in full force in this new adaptation. You’ve never seen Shakespeare like this.”

Crow's Theatre - Toronto

Chris Abraham, Artistic Director

Cardinal mentioned that Chris Abraham, the Artistic Director at Crow’s Theatre, and hot-shot Shakespeare Director in Canada, brought this particularly deceptive twist to the play forward.

It was reported that audiences as well as theatre critics had a wide range of reactions and emotions after experiencing the show. Everyone talked about it. That’s what ultimately mattered — that conversations were happening.

Mirvish Productions has now brought Cardinal’s show to the CAA Theatre with slight tweaks including to the title, The Land Acknowledgement or As You Like It. What is clearly different in this evolution is the audience has an idea of what to expect — that’s if they read the show’s description. But even with that in mind, Cardinal is still able to hold the audience’s attention by offering moments of laughter and eye opening truths of reality, sadness and seething anger.

So, how does this theatre and audience differ from the original? “It’s a lot bigger,” said Cardinal. “There’s also less conflict with the audience because they are expecting to see me. That seems to be the major difference although I’m trying to gauge the entire room — what’s the quality of silence? What’s the punctuation and the significance of the laughter? I am living the show. I’m sharing and being a part of the moment with the audience.”

Although he’s the only performer on stage Cardinal mentioned the team behind the scenes work just as hard. At each performance they deliver the same show about The Land Acknowledgement. On official opening night, Cardinal had invited friends and family. “There were Indigenous people in the audience so it was a really wild experience to have some people laughing when other people were upset. But I will say there is something pretty special when the whole community is there. I’m not just saying Black and Indigenous people — I mean everyone who calls Turtle Island home and three generations were there.”

He gave us a lot to think about. For 1 hour and 30 minutes that seemed to move swiftly, Cardinal addressed the stolen land, colonization, missing, murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), polluted waters, education, and residential schools. We were also reminded about resilience, community, support, and friendship. And more. Lots more.

“What does The Land Acknowledgement accomplish?” you might ask yourself especially after seeing this performance. Will anything change?  Is it a pat-on-the-back or a checked box for corporations and organizations? Do we consider ourselves allies…or friends? BTW, Cardinal actually says he hates The Land Acknowledgement — you will want to see this performance to learn why.

I asked Cardinal “How is this not already lined up on a streaming service like Netflix?” He mentioned that a documentary comedy is in the works with Daniel MacIvor that will land somewhere. Stay tuned for that.

Who should see this? EVERYONE. Cardinal’s perspective and experience gave us much to think about that we have not considered or have come across in the past. He is insightful, brilliant and yes, funny!

THE LAND ACKNOWLEDGMENT OR AS YOU LIKE IT is now on stage at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge Street) in Toronto until April 2, 2023. For more information and for tickets visit Mirvish.com 

Cardinal also encouraged us to do more than listen or recite The Land Acknowledgement. Burning down churches might sound like an extreme reaction and unrealistic but hey, thousands of children were taken from their families, stripped of their culture and heritage, mentally and physically abused, and never returned home. So, there’s that.

Okay, but what can we really do to help? Support Indigenous owned and operated businesses. Make donations to Indigenous charities. Learn and support Indigenous organizations including the Centre for Indigenous Theatre (he is an active Board member). There’s also the Indigenous Fashion Arts organization where Cardinal’s wife is the Artist Director. “They are running one of the most exciting Festivals in the city and the organization is so young,” said Cardinal. “They are doing some really cool things to open up the conversation politically and also introducing fashion in a totally hot way!”

Supporting the Indigenous community can also be done so in many other ways. Attending performances and exhibitions, watching documentaries, listening to music, and learning about artists are just a few ways to help open our hearts and eyes to the world we all share.

Here are some of my favourites to explore…

Indigenous Visual Artists: Norval Morrisseau is iconic but explore others including Brian Jungen, Kent Monkman, Daphne Odjig, and Christi Belcourt.

Indigenous musicians: PIQSIK, Digging Roots, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, and Sebastian Gaskin.

There are many incredible Indigenous Chefs in our country including David Wolfman, Joseph Shawana, Bill Alexander, Rich Francis, Christa Bruneau-Guenther, Shawn Adler, Cezin Nottaway, are a few culinary talents seriously worth getting to know. There’s a documentary series called Red Chef Revival that is a great place to start.

Ziigwan – Indigenous Music and Arts Festival is coming up (March 24 to March 26) at Yonge and Dundas Square (Toronto). This three-day festival will transform the public space into an Indigenous music and art hub, as some of the country’s most prominent and emerging Indigenous artists take the stage for three straight days of free concerts. Ziigwan is the Anishnaabemowin word for springtime. The event celebrates the healing and learning power of music and art, the rebirth of spring, and the collective awakening as we walk together on the path toward reconciliation. Visit downiewenjack.ca/events/ziigwan/ for schedule.

Here’s a family-friendly Toronto Travel story with a focus on Indigenous arts and culture to check out: https://www.auburnlane.com/exploring-indigenous-arts-culture-toronto/