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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Innu actor Marjolaine Mckenzie treads the boards in New York

BY Martin Siberok Mar 13, 2022

Living in New York City just a stone’s throw from Central Park and rehearsing for a play that had its world premiere this month is a dream come true for Marjolaine Mckenzie.

“Being here in New York and working as an actor is more than I could have imagined,” said Mckenzie. 

It’s a far cry from her home community of Matimekush Lac-John on the Quebec-Labrador border, and the Innu actor loves taking long walks to explore Manhattan’s densely populated neighbourhoods.

“What surprises me is how many dogs there are here. Some people have really big ones, and they live in small apartments. And in the park, you see dogwalkers with 10 dogs – I need to post a photo of this,” she shared with a laugh.

Mckenzie is a cast member in Misdemeanor Dream, a multi-layered project that is being produced by Spiderwoman Theater, a company that focuses on feminist and Indigenous material. 

Rooted in Indigenous storytelling, Misdemeanor Dream uses the technique of story-weaving to blend traditional and personal stories with movement, sound and projections – all to reclaim and revitalize missing stories, languages and identity.

Mckenzie and her fellow Indigenous actors have been working on the project for the past five years – from its workshop inception in Stratford, Ontario, to its polished premiere at La MaMa in New York.

“Usually, we are 12 people on stage, but due to Covid there are only six of us,” explained Mckenzie. “But we did not forget the others. They are with us telling their stories on video which will be projected on a large screen.”

In developing Misdemeanor Dream, director Muriel Miguel gave the actors certain words to focus on and build stories around. The two words Mckenzie was given were “dreams” and “stars”, and she created stories that reflect events in her personal life. One involves the mysterious disappearance in 1981 of her father, Daniel Mckenzie, in the bush about 25 kilometres outside of Schefferville.

“My story about stars is focused on my father who got lost on the land when I was only one. It is about him lying down on the land and looking up at the stars, which keep coming closer and closer. In my piece I imagine myself looking into the sky to see when he saw. And I say I know where my dad is – he is with the stars.” 

Then she added, “When I first shared this story with the others, I was very emotional and started crying. It is very powerful.”

On a lighter note, another story Mckenzie shares is about being a young girl dreaming of becoming a superstar. “I wanted to be an actor. As a child I was in love with Julia Roberts. I watched her films dubbed in French and then walked around pretending to be like her.”

Mckenzie pursued her dream of becoming an actor and attended the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto in 2001, but she realized early on that it was going to be hard to survive as a professional and be able to pay her rent and bills.

In 2004, she landed her first major contract with a role in Hamlet-le-Malécite, an adaptation of Hamlet by Huron-Wendat playwright Yves Sioui Durand and Québécois director Jean-Frédéric Messier. But once the run was over, there were no roles waiting for her.

“By then, I had a young daughter who I needed to take care of, and I knew that I could not have a life that was not secure and did not pay well.”

Despite it being her passion, acting took a back seat in her life with Mckenzie working as a community organizer over the years; today she is the operations coordinator for the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador.

“I knew I couldn’t have the kind of life I dreamed of, but life gave it to me in a different way,” said a contented Mckenzie. “As I am finding out, life – like our play – is about magic, about dreams, about the stars, and about the spirits.”

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Martin Siberok is an editor of the Nation as well as a professor of Journalism at Montreal's Vanier College.