Alexandra (Sasha) Kovacs, “Beyond Shame and Blame in Pauline Johnson’s Performance Histories”

Alexandra Kovacs’s “Beyond Shame and Blame in Pauline Johnson’s Performance Histories” exemplifies the highest thought in research. If offers an historical framework for understanding and reframing Pauline Johnson’s theatrical performances through compelling archival research. And it illustrates the extent to which our willingness to expand our methods and to overturn our assumptions and pre-suppositions transforms the researcher and renders transformative results. At once exhilarating and cautionary, this eloquent work also enjoins us to consider the damage to “early Indigenous subjects” perpetrated by careless “oversight,” personal bias, or inappropriate “approaches taken thus far” in research praxis (49). Kovacs builds a strong, elegant defence of those who can no longer speak for themselves, re-writing popular historical notions and re-righting our understanding of the Mohawk performer-poetess Pauline Johnson and her sister, historian Evelyn Johnson. Pushing against the “critical shaming” of Pauline Johnson for her “troubling,” “Indian” costume (40) Kovacs examines the “codes” and “protocols involved in the development of costumes” in the Victorian period (43), demonstrating how Johnson worked within and “beyond” these exigencies by employing her ingenuity, histrionic abilities and key props to transform a versatile material base into an entire wardrobe suited to multiple Indigenous characters. In so doing, we are able to move past questions surrounding Johnson’s “authenticity” or accusations levelled against her “hollow activism” and appreciate Pauline Johnson’s tenacious creativity, gymnastic performativity, courageous talent, and elegant tenacity. Kovacs allows us to see these aspects of Johnson’s life and art through new, unjaded eyes. In locating and publicizing extant scripts performed (and not authored by) Pauline Johnson, Alexandra Kovacs offers us new ways in which to imagine Johnson’s performances and “frees Johnson’s sister Evelyn from blame for erasing her entire performance archive” (49). This is a timely and important work, which unsettles the history of Johnson’s work in the context of theatre studies in Canada and beyond.