High Trails | Review by Sandra Sawatzky

Asked by artistic director Nicole Mion if he had a work he could bring to The Fluid Festival Justin Manyfingers wrote his one-man show in three days gleaned from personal experience and witnessing life growing up on a reserve in rural Alberta.  Marshal Vielle as the quixotic transvestite Jonathan is a revelation. In front of the audience Vielle shapeshifts into Jonathan’s grandmother, father, mother, best friend, an elusive cowboy lover and in and out of Jonathan’s drag queen persona – performing each role with empathy for the characters – shaded in light, medium and dark tonality. Grim reality, gut-wrenching tragedy, tender love and camp humour are interwoven through Jonathan’s story of growing up queer on the reserve, where his father commits suicide and his mother drinks, and the cowboy he loves rejects  and beats him out of fear if anyone finds out.  Manyfingers said he wanted the work to be set in rural Alberta and used the cannon of singer Buffy St Marie, along with the influence of movies Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Brokeback Mountain as touchstones for this story.  

The Fluid Festival is a dance festival and a festival of movement.  Vielle is in motion always and our eyes follow him as he sashays to the tune of Starwalker, makes the purring sounds of a sewing machine with his lips pushing a shawl through an imaginary machine, folds the same shawl neatly and lays it softly on the chair of the grandmother who died- a woman who loved him but rejected his gay identity, and the mother cradling a shirt worn by the father when he hung himself.  Vielle’s face shifts from young to old, male to female expressing childlike exuberance, dark anger  grief and guilt.

The starkest moment is when Jonathan’s mother tells us her son disappeared and has been gone a very long time. She prays that he is okay. Her pain is palpable. We know she thinks the worst has happened. We then see Jonathan putting the finishing touches of makeup on his face for his drag performance. He’s in the city living his dream, so he says, working three nights a week performing.  Nonchalantly he tells us that he is thinking of returning to see his family for Christmas and surprise them. He continues to artfully apply his make up and tells us that he heard that a rodeo cowboy was beaten to death near the reserve, he pauses and lightly wonders if it was her cowboy. The lightness of his tone belies his terror. Feeling vulnerable Jonathan covers up. He’s learned to deal with tragedy by walking away and disappear into his creation VLT Bingo Stomper.

Sandra Sawatzky is an artist/filmmaker whose recent installation the nine year project The Black Gold Tapestry delighted audiences at Glenbow Museum.

Katherine Holm