The myth we tell ourselves as Canadians is that our history is free of discrimination and bloodshed. The fact is, there are tales within Canada’s history that are only recently being told that refute this. Ted Northe’s is one of them, and his amazing story is the heart and centre of The Empress and the Prime Minister.
The performance begins with Northe discussing historical subversives, like Joan of Arc, who dressed in drag on the brink of revolution. Northe, a revolutionary himself, almost single-handedly influenced Pierre Trudeau to push for, and eventually pass, Bill C-150, which ostensibly decriminalized homosexuality in Canada.
Darrin Hagen, who authored the script, plays Northe, a confident young nurse and dancer, who meets with Trudeau during his run for prime minister. As Northe explains, his ‘gayness’ is his ‘church’; it means everything to him. And unlike people who can leave the church, he can’t just leave being gay. Northe’s life is fraught with frustration and pain, some shown, some alluded to, showcasing that even the most self-assured marginalized person can still feel marginalized.
The story is told as a combination of the present-tense conversation and meetings between Northe and Trudeau, and through several flashbacks of Northe’s life, from his volatile relationship with a California priest, to his introduction to drag, to illuminating the relationship between the LGBTQ2S+ community and the law during the 1950s and ’60s. Director Bradley Moss weaves the past and present in a way that doesn’t attempt to ‘explain’ Northe, or elicit sympathy. It is us who are left to see these truths and root for the person who was the catalyst for important change.
Hagen plays Northe as both confident and hungry, but also vulnerable. He walks the line between these two qualities generating laughs and empathy. Joey Lespérance moves seamlessly and believably between playing many characters, from assured, determined Pierre Trudeau, to the flamboyant Mama Rosa. Regardless of their pairings, their chemistry changes to match the relationships portrayed and is always strong and sound.
It has been 50 years since the passing of the bill, and Hagen’s play honours this important victory. Given the rise of conservatism in this province, The Empress and the Prime Minister seems more timely than he could have imagined. Those unaware of Ted Northe, the “Empress of Canada”, are bound to not just recognize, but truly admire the significance of his contributions to a more just and equal Canada after seeing this important production.
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