Café Daughter Interview with Playwright Kenneth T. Williams

Interview by Chee-Hann Wu

When did you first encounter Lillian Eva Quan Dyck and her story? What inspired you to write the play?)

I first met her in 1999. I was a researcher for a charity called National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. That charity produces a show which used to be called the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards and is now the Indspire Awards. In 1999, it was going to be presented in Regina and since I was originally from Saskatchewan, the producer of the award show asked me to try and find a good recipient from Saskatchewan. Through my cousin’s suggestion, I first heard of and met Lillian, and I even found a family connection that we have (distant relation). I then asked her, “how did your parents meet? How come you have a Chinese father and a Cree mother?” That was how the story came about. Back at that time, Chinese men weren’t allowed to hire white women for their business. It was really shocking to me because I thought I knew a lot about First Nation’s history, and I thought I knew a lot about Canadian history, too, but I did not know about that law.

Lillian and I got to know each other more after that. During our talk, I thought of a really good story, but I didn’t know how I was going to approach it at that time. I then met a Chinese Canadian filmmaker Keith Lock who lives out of Toronto some years later. He has done a lot of historical work on the Chinese Canadian experience. I started talking to him about Lillian’s story, and he had no idea that such law existed, either. For me, when I found out that someone who specifically knows about Chinese Canadian history that well didn’t know the part of the history, we were onto something. The initial idea was to make a movie, but I was having trouble writing the script. What I want to do was, I want to write it as a play so that we can find the spine of the story. About 2005 or 2006, the Gwaandak theatre society out of Whitehorse in Yukon put on a call for proposal because they had money to commission a brand new work.

In about 2008, I started writing, and the play got produced in 2011.

Why is the play important to you?

It’s important because I haven’t heard of it before. I thought I am fairly knowledgeable about certain aspects of Canadian history. But I didn’t know about it, and I figured a lot of people didn’t know it as well. It was also just an interesting dramatic situation. The core of the story is about the character Yvette who was told by her mother never to identify herself as a Cree girl, and to me that was what really happened to Lillian when she was ten years old before her mother died. I thought there’s got to be a way to tell that story. For me, it’s like when you heard a good story, you’ve got to tell it.

Was the play planned to be a solo show at the very beginning of your writing? Why is it important for Café Daughter to be a solo show?

When it was a screen play, I had about 40 characters. From interviewing Lillian, her brother, and our collective larger family to get an idea of the history of the time, there were so many elements that I wanted to put into it. It was too big and it as too long. The other problem was, how do I present all those people? I had also done multicasting before. What really funny was, I got the idea of writing solo show when I was actually watching Finding Nemo. In one of the extra features in the DVD, there was a part where the producer stands up in front of a group of investors and other members of Pixar, and he just stands there and tells the story in first person. I thought, “that’s a really good idea!” And also, the play is about this little girl. It’s her individual story, so let’s hear it directly. Let her recounts the story to us.

How does this compare to your other plays?

It is the only solo show I’ve written until now. It is one of the two plays of mine that is based on a real person, and it’s a memory play which the other one is not. All the others plays I’ve done have been completely fabrications and made up by myself. In fact, each play tries to push me as a writer not to rely on something I have done before. I don’t want to be the guy who just wrote the same play over and over again. For me, the solo-show aspect is the most unique feature of this work.

What are the difficulties you encounter when working on this play?

The biggest problem was, there was so much detail. The play has more aspects of First Nation’s life than the Chinese Canadian experience. There is weight on Yvette’s shoulders throughout the play on identifying as a First Nation girl. Although not in the play, there were things about how the Chinese men adapted to life in Canada and how they adapted to these laws preventing them from bringing their family over, and preventing them from doing certain business that I wanted to tell. There was a bunch of characters that I loved but I had to get rid of because the play was getting to be really long, and I am asking one person to do it! The biggest problem is cutting away a lot of the richness of the play and focusing down on what the heart of the story was.

The other thing was that I couldn’t be extremely faithful to Lillian’s life. There are certain things that are drawn from her life almost directly, like the isolation from the Cree side of her family and the feeling of loneliness. Lillian actually has a brother she grew up with. Lillian is not a medical doctor. She has a PhD in neuroscience, and she was a leading researcher in that area.

I also reversed some of the things. Her father died when she was seventeen, but dramatically that doesn’t work. What really happened was that her father was actually trying to find a husband for her. When we think of father picking a husband for his daughter, in a contemporary sense we would think that’s awful. But I had to dig into Charlie’s mind, and see what his motivations are. Charlie’s motivations are that he’s dying. He needs to take care of his daughter, but he can’t do it when he is gone. He is in fact doing the right thing as far as he is concerned. It is just a cultural clash what it means for Yvette and what it means for Charlie. This is why PJ Prudat, who plays Yvette in the previous production, said Charlie is her favorite character because he loses so much. He is left with nothing at the end of the play. For me as a playwright, I had to make him really understandable as a loving father, so there are a lot of things I have to really dig into such as what Chinese men were facing, what their struggles were, what were haunting them…

What is your relationship with Workshop West?

I grew up in Saskatchewan, but Edmonton is my hometown. Workshop West was where my very first play in Edmonton was produced. I was with them on the play called Three Little Birds. They are the only main stage producer of my works. They’ve been really essential to my career.

Workshop West is working on connecting theatre performance to communities. Is there any community you would really look forward to having them see the play?

The experience of this play brings out the First Nation people and the Chinese people (Chinese Canadian people) to see this play. They both react to the play very positively. It is to get more people into the theatre, and to understand the story told is about their communities and about them. That’s what I am hoping to happen because we have this problem in theatre that we are always competing against the idea that we are elitist. For me, it is not an expensive night out, but to come to see the story be told. This is a story about Canada. It’s a story about family. The Chinese Immigration Act and the Indian acts were designed to break families. They were designed to fracture families. The story of this play is about how a new family was formed because of these pieces of legislation. Lillian’s parents would not have met if the Chinese Immigration Act didn’t exist. If Chinese immigrant families were allowed to come in like any immigrant families from other countries, there wouldn’t be this situation. It’s fascinating to me that racist pieces of legislation are responsible for this play and for the family. And it is still largely unknown, so I want to tell the story.

What do you hope people come away with after seeing it?

It’s an appreciation of the story and of the history. In the English side of things in Canada, we don’t really understand a lot about our own history. We don’t really appreciate our own stories because we think there is no history. I remember my generation runs a bit like that we think Canadian history was boring. In a sense, that was an act of colonization that we always keep quiet. However, when you look back, and see where the ignorance comes from, decolonizing this country requires us to confront the myth that we embraced and loved so much. I think that is what I am trying to do. I am trying to tell that there are really great stories underneath those myths. There are myths that are harmful. I am trying to remove the harm while at the same time, it doesn’t mean you will like what I am going to say.

Why have you chosen to live in Saskatoon?

My little travel journey to here was that I worked for the aboriginal people’s television as a reporter for six and a half years. When the news organization started, we didn’t have a Saskatchewan reporter for many years. An opportunity arose for me to move here and I wanted to take it.

When I was about to turn forty, since I keep calling myself a playwright, I think it’s about time I started to do something about that. I quit my day job and jumped into the film/ TV/ theatre industry, and Saskatoon has been really good to me that way. Because of that, my subsequent plays like Three Little Birds got produced. Thunderstick got produced and is doing really well nationally. Bannock Republic and Gordon Winter, which is based on a First Nation leader here, got created. Café Daughter was produced as well. I am also working on several other plays. I am now working at the University of Saskatchewan as a sectional instructor on drama. It’s been pretty good for me here.

Do you have any further thought for the upcoming production of Café Daughter by Workshop West?

For me, this is one of my favourite plays. I am really proud of it as a writer. I think I really got the atmosphere right. I think it really hits the audience in ways that I haven’t been able to reach them before. I am really excited to see how a different production team comes together and looks at the exact same work, and what they come up. The kind of the good joy-nervous things you have as a playwright is that, you’ve got to give it away to all these other people to make it work. All my work is been done, and now I just have to sit, wait and see what happens.