Singer/songwriter Lucie Idlout casts aside her angry rocker persona to play the demure Akatingwah in Two Words for Snow
After bursting on to the national music scene last year and making a name for herself as the host of Buffalo Tracks on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network, local singer/songwriter Lucie Idlout has expanded her creative wings once again. This time, they landed her on the stage, where she performed this month in the Toronto production of Richard Sanger’s Two Words for Snow.
Capitalizing on contemporary audiences’ appetite for all things polar, the play concerns Robert Edwin Peary’s early 20th century quest to reach the North Pole.
The central figure is Matthew Henson, Peary’s African-American sidekick, who we first encounter as an old man in the so-called Eskimo Room of the New York Museum of Natural History, which commemorates Peary’s successful expedition to the pole 26 years earlier.
Confronted by Peary’s son about his controversial claim to the New York Times that he was the first to reach the pole, and that Peary took credit for his achievement, Henson becomes lost in his memories. And it is through his memories that the story unfolds, as he remembers his last trip to the Arctic and the woman he left behind.
That woman is Akatingwah, played by Idlout. She teaches Henson Inuktitut, which enables him to take advantage of Inuit knowledge of the land to reach the pole. Over time, they become lovers and she begs him to stay with her when it becomes clear that the expedition is unlikely to succeed — and that racism and pride make Peary unlikely to share the glory with Henson.
Those familiar with Idlout’s usual performance persona —the angry, outspoken, in-your-face young woman showcased in her music — may be surprised to learn that she is remarkably subdued on stage.
Playing Akatingwah requires Idlout to play the stereotypical Aboriginal woman that she appears to reject normally, a woman who is quiet and demure and utterly enraptured by Henson and his stories of the warm land down South.
Aside from appearing a bit stiff, Idlout handles herself well, creating a believably naive young woman, whether she is cajoling Henson into telling her more stories about the adventures her husband would be having in New York (where he and five other Inuit men went to be part of the display at the Museum of Natural History) or conspiring to get more caramels out of Peary.
Where she flounders is the dramatic end of the first act, which calls for her to become angry and impassioned. Peary persuades Henson to leave the Arctic, telling him Akatingwah is simply using him for the food and trinkets he gives her. And Henson, swept up in the explorer’s blustering charisma, believes him, and essentially chooses a future with Peary over one with Akatingwah.
When Akatingwah learns of this, she confronts Henson, and her true nature is revealed. Although she played up her naiveté to get her way with Peary, she is, in fact, a sharp-minded, hot-blooded woman who has real feelings for Henson.
Unfortunately, Idlout is unable to ratchet up the appropriate feelings of anger or betrayal required for the moment. So when she runs off stage, screaming at Henson that she loved him and that he was too blinded by his and Peary’s ambition to see it, we are left with the impression that she is having a tantrum rather than a fit of passion.
Still, Idlout’s Akatingwah leaves a haunting impression with the audience, especially later, when we rejoin Henson in the Museum of Natural History. As an old man, Henson spends his days sitting in the Eskimo Room, which is in the process of being taken apart and put into storage.
He is consumed with guilt for mistrusting and leaving Akatingwah, as well as for the fate of the six Inuit men he persuaded to go to New York. They were treated like circus animals and died shortly after arriving.
One of the most affecting moments of the play is when Henson lifts a tarp from one of the display cases to reveal a preserved skeleton he says was Akatingwah’s husband. As he howls for her for her forgiveness, we are left thinking of Idlout’s Akatingwah at the end of her relationship with Henson, demanding to know when her husband would come home and leave the warm land behind.