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One-woman show brings Lil'wat language to life in útszan

Yvonne Wallace stars in production, running from Sept. 19 to 22 at Maury Young Arts Centre
Yvonne Wallace’s play, útszan, opens at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Sept. 19. Photo submitted

Playwright and actress Yvonne Wallace is overcome with emotion when she envisions the question-and-answer session that will follow her one-woman show, útszan (to make things better).

The show primarily focuses on a woman named Celia who tries to teach her niece, Margaret, to speak Ucwalmicwts, the traditional Lil'wat language. But, of course, there's much more meaning to be unpacked in the story, which is why Wallace decided to add the post-production conversation.

"I think we have to remember that Canada [had] a strategy that left Indigenous people out of many conversations," she says. "On every level, a dialogue between two people is essential to move forward and [foster] healing that needs to happen. I want people to ask questions about our language and I want people to know where to source help if they need it. I want to create a safe space where people can just have a full experience. I don't want them to walk away without understanding."

Wallace first started writing the play three years ago as her graduating project from the liberal arts program at Capilano University. While she grew up in Mount Currie, she didn't become fluent in Ucwalmicwts, so part of the writing process was learning the language.

While she was encouraged to include translations in the production, she opted, instead, to ensure the context of the play would be clear for non-Ucwalmicwts speakers.

"I'm of the mindset that [learning the language is] not difficult at all," she says. "The part that feels huge to me is my connection to identity. We have, across Canada, this saying that 'the people and the land are one.' But I believe that a lot of our cultural teachings are so deeply rooted in our language. That serves into the same teaching that the people and the land are one; the language and the people are one. They intersect in a very integral way to who we are and how we behave in the world."

While the show will see its world premiere at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Sept. 19, with shows running until Sept. 22, Wallace performed a version of it in April last year for an invited group of about 70 people, which included family and Lil'wat members.

"It was one of my best days," she says. "It was a beautiful mix of elders, teachers, faculty from the university, and youth ... [With] the younger students, we went into the First Nations lounge at Capliano University and had lunch together. Before I even arrived, these youth where serving our elders, making them feel welcome and having a conversation. It was the kind of perfect day I imagined it to be after working on it for three years. It wasn't so much about me as it was about practicing all these things that make us beautiful as a people."

The show is running for four days in Whistler, which includes an evening show each night and matinees on Sept. 19 and 20 as well. It is the most extensive run of shows in the theatre in recent memory.

For Mo Douglas, executive director at Arts Whistler, which is hosting the performance, it's an important addition to the Fall for Arts lineup.

"It's a big deal. We want Canada to know about this. It's a good example of using art as a pathway [to reconciliation]," Douglas says. "It's bold and we've been talking about wanting to do a project like this."

Tickets are just $5 and Arts Whistler is coordinating transportation from Mount Currie. "We want to make sure there's no reason you can't be here," Douglas adds.

It was important for Wallace, too. "It really does feel like a community event where everyone is involved," she says. "That really is just a dream come true. There's no other way to say it for me. If I hang up my theatre hat for the rest of my days, I'll feel like I'm fully accomplished."

útszan opens at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Sept. 19 with a show at 1 p.m. and another at 7 p.m. Evening performances run until Sept. 22 with a second matinee at 1 p.m. on Sept. 20.

The suggested age is 13 and older. Tickets are $5 at