The “Rez Sisters” was first performed as a play in 1986, written by Native North American playwright Tomson Highway. A Cree Native of Manitoba, Canada, Highway wanted to make life on the reservation (short for “Rez”) seem appealing by educating and entertaining the Canadian audience of the reality of reservation life. Highway’s goal in writing the play was to “show and celebrate what funky folk Canada's Indian people really are” (Napierkowski). The play received very high reviews including that of William Peel who in Canadian Theatre Review called them, “a striking cast of characters who reveal both blemishes and beauty” and who “possess, on the whole, great human dignity”.
The play takes place during a summer in 1986, on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Indian Reserve (referred to by residents as "Wasy") on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, and provides the portrait of seven “Rez sisters” who are all related by birth or marriage. The distinct personalities of each character are used to offer the audience a different attitude towards life and their role on the reservation (Napierkowski). The seven women arrange a road trip from their Indian reserve to Toronto to participate in “THE BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD”; each woman dreaming of winning the bingo jackpot and what life changing fortunes it will bring them; Pelajia hoping for paved roads and their beloved Nanabush to return, Philomena a big white toilet, Marie-Adele her own island for her family, Annie Cook every one of Patsy Clines records, a new record player, and to sing with Fritz the Catz, and Veronique St. Pierre a big new stove. These characters display the natural desire to rise above their surroundings and create a better environment for their children and each other. Although the reserve can be viewed as a place of misery, with little hope, and where there is nothing to do but “drink and screw each other’s wives”, the screenwriter uses optimism and humour in his characters and includes the positive values taught in Indian mythology. Each “Rez” sister has their own personal demons and tragedies and hopes that winning the world’s biggest bingo game will be the answer to all their problems (Napierkowski).
The play opens with Pelaija Patchnose, a contractor, who reveals her desire to escape her distasteful life in “Wasy” and complains to her sister, Philomena that she wants to leave “Wasy” and go to Toronto, where her sons are living. Philomena, full of gossip, helps to lift her sisters’ spirit and offers humour to the storyline; obsessed with owning a new big, wide and white toilet. It is later unveiled that Philomena conceived a child whom she never met, after having an affair with her boss, who eventually abandoned her. Both she and Pelaija remain “trapped” on the reserve.
The varied cast of characters includes Marie-Adele Starblanket who has 14 children and is diagnosed with the onset of cancer and later expresses her true fears of dying. She optimistically believes that her husband, Eugene would carry the load and care for her children if it became necessary for her to check into a hospital, or worse, pass away.
Annie Cook, older sister of Marie-Adele and half sister of Pelaija and Philomena, lost her husband Eugene, to her own sister Marie-Adele. Annie has unrealistic hopes of being a country singer and to someday marry Fritz the Catz, a Jewish country musician; a dream that might be easier to accept if she could sing.
Emily Dictionary, sister of Annie, works in the local store and is a rough ex-biker who lost her lesbian lover in a tragic motorcycle accident; although previously married with a husband that abused her and almost killed her. She offers conflict between the characters.
The “busybody” Veronique St. Pierre, sister in-law of Emily, is generally disliked and has two equal sources of distress in her life including a mentally disabled adopted daughter, Zhaboonigan Peterson and an unpredictable stove.
The spirit of “Nanabush”, the only male character, who is also known as “The Trickster,” is a mythological spirit that observes (and sometimes enters into) the action of the play.
Zhaboonigan Peterson, daughter of Veronique St. Pierre, is the adopted, mentally challenged daughter of Veronique that was orphaned after a car accident killed her parents. Zhaboonigan was sexually abused by two white males and carries this burden with her, while being the only character besides Marie- Adele that is able to see the spirit of Nanabush.
The “sisters” encounter and over come several diversions and obstacles on their way to Toronto, and the climax of the characters’ emotional personalities are heightened during the exchange of the women’s stories. The audience gets to know these women; they see their generosity and their faults through their stories, and how they treat each other. Even when the women argue and fight and gossip maliciously about each other, they also look out for one another. The bond of sisterhood transcends all racial labels and material objects (Napierkowski).
Once the sisters reach Toronto, they play the bingo game of their lives, along with the audience. During the game, Marie-Adele Starblanket passes away; finally going with Nanabush away into the afterlife. The women, unfortunately not winning the big jackpot, return home to “Wasy”. However, Philomena and Veronique win a portion of money, which they each use on what they dreamed of having at the beginning of the play; Philomena buying her toilet, and Veronique her stove. Veronique, with her new stove is thrilled to cook for the 14 Starblanket children and Eugene. Emily returns home to her store, but with big news; she is pregnant, which she informs Zhaboonigan of in her final scene. Annie Cook’s dream of signing back up for Fritz the Catz comes true and Pelajia returns to her contracting on the roof, as the play started, unaware that her wish of Nanabush returning to the Rez had come true. Unseen by Pelajia, Nanabush, in his guise of the seagull, joins her on the roof, dancing to the beat of her hammer, merrily and triumphantly. Although the women of the Rez return to their normal lives, and routines, largely unchanged, they return with a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other.
As the play comes to an end, the audience learns that one of the plays themes include that home is where the heart is; and how a group of women learn to respect themselves and where they live, rather than running off to a new, unfamiliar place (Napierkowski). “This place is too much inside your blood.”
"The Rez Sisters: Introduction." Drama for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 28 December 2011. <http://www.enotes.com/rez-sisters/introduction>.