Court of Public Opinion: Little Red Warrior and His Lawyer
A land claim fever dream borne of very real legal frustrations
By: Athina Pantazopoulos
Little Red Warrior and his Lawyer is a fantastically funny and surreal piece of theatre that tells the story of Little Red, the last of the Red Warrior people, and his court appointed criminal defender, Larry the Lawyer, who takes on a new purpose when he comes across a potential land claim that could make him rich. This comedy addresses the harsh tension of wealth and heart in a modern-day Canada where it seems that commodification is around every corner. Our characters take us on a condensed and stylized journey through the land claim process that had the law students in attendance chuckling into our programs. Attending this show was a joy and a gift, not only because the performance skillfully showcased some of the great talent of the National Arts Center’s Indigenous Theatre, but because it provided a stark reminder of how lawyers are seen and understood by our clients.
The show begins with an address to the audience. “Do you want to hear a story?” And we are all engaged. There are no passive participants in this tale, it’s going to grab you by the hand and pull you into the world and its characters. A response is required, we all yell “yes”. We are taken on a journey of Little Red, as he wakes in his small home in the Red Warrior valley. As he first sees that developers have come onto his land in the night. As he confronts the interlopers, and when words don’t work, chases them off with the blow of a shovel!
And then we are thrust into a holding cell. And the show becomes, in a very integral way, about the law.
Little Red is moved through two court cases in this play, his criminal trial and his land claim. And while both cases center around him, the show clearly illustrates that this is not a system that will meet him on a level playing field. From the very beginning, Little Red asserts that as Chief of his people, he should speak directly to the Queen. And from the very beginning, his lawyer pushes his voice aside and tells him what to say.
While there are no clear villains in this show, the duo of Larry the Lawyer and his wife Desdemona are certainly not characters that are designed to evoke sympathy. Both are led by their desire for wealth and power, both rely on stereotypes and false politeness, and both seek to gain something from Little Red while he is held prisoner, first by the law, and later as their guest. This portrayal of lawyers, while not kind and certainly not wholly accurate, is a fair reminder of the work that still needs to be done in our profession.
“Since when does being a lawyer mean you have to care about your clients?” Desdemona asks about mid-way into the play. “This court’s not here to solve your problems, this court is here to serve the Crown,” a Supreme Court judge angrily proclaims near the end. “It’s time for your people to step up and hire a lawyer,” Larry announces, summing up the essential worldview that lawyers are believed to hold.
This may be a classic case of a critic overthinking what was meant to be a comedic choice, but I don’t think that’s all that it was.
Playwright and director, Kevin Loring, clearly did his research. The whole land claims process was riddled with inside jokes that demonstrated at least a comfortable familiarity with the last 30 years of Canadian land claims.
From the beginning of the play, the land claims system is treated by the characters as an ongoing joke. It’s a way for lawyers to get rich or a challenge for lawyers to prove their worth to a firm. The Courts are dismissive at every stage, telling Little Red that he has no chance of resolution in his lifetime, that his appeal is unfounded, that there is nothing the court can do to change the fact that we, the colonisers, are on his land.
Despite this, there is a backhanded humour attributed to the court process. The judge at trial allows interpretive dance to be performed in place of arguments. The court rolls out a comically long scroll when rendering its decision. And, most tellingly, upon reading this scroll, the judge realizes that the decision that he is reading is from the last land claim that was heard in his court, so he puts today’s date on it and calls it a day.
It is impossible for Little Red to reach legal resolution until he summons the spirit of the Crown and makes a deal with her directly. This threatening figure in knee high boots and a blue corset speaks to Little Red with respect and controls her court with an iron fist. When a deal is struck, it is binding, and while the audience is never told what Little Red offered in return, it is clear that there is a price.
This incredible political satire is not subtle about the redress that Indigenous nations are craving. Nor does it push aside how hopeless this redress seems. While we laugh along to our onstage counterparts playing up their utter ignorance of the doctrine of terra nullius, this play gives us ground to reflect on how damning that is.