Huff: Biography, Synopsis and Witnessing


Biography- Cliff Cardinal

Cardinal was born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, but has spent most of life in Toronto where he currently lives. His love for acting started at a young age as result of his mother, Tantoo Cardinal, being a well credited actress. When he was 15 years old, he took a semester off of school to focus on theatre.

Cardinal performed in Freeman’s Wake by Yvette Nolan, authour of Medicine Shows,  which showed in the Rhubarb Festival in 2005. After this, Cardinal started taking acting classes and workshops. As mentioned in Medicine Shows, Cardinal acted in “an adapted version of Tales of an Urban Indian that toured BC secondary schools in a Green Thumb production in 2007” (Nolan, 2015, 28) where he received a Jessie Richardson Memorial Theatre Award nomination for Outstanding Performance.

Cardinal only started to write after joining Native Earth’s Young Voice program where his work was influenced by George Carlin and Richard Pryor. His first play, Stitch, was shown at SummerWorks 2011 and won the Theatre Passe Muraille’s Emerging Artist Award.

The next year, Huff was shown at SummerWorks 2012 where Cardinal received the 2012 Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk & Innovation. The play was inspired by and based on a short story Cardinal wrote in 2005 called  “Huff”.

In 2013, Cardinal’s Maria Gets A New Life, debuted at SummerWorks 2013.


The performance started with the main character, Wind, trying to killing him. He is lying on the ground with a plastic bag taped around his head and his hands handcuffed behind him.  He is talking to the audience as if he is narrating what is happening. The audience then understands that the play is going to be about how he ended up in the situation.

The play only has one performer who is acting multiple people. He describes how his parents met, referring to them as “the warrior and the princess”. He then states how after having three boys, his mom committed suicide , leaving his dad to look after them. The performer acts out what life was like for Wind and his brothers, Charles and Huff, growing up on the reserve. The audience witnesses the mischief, and drugs the brothers get into, as well as the abuse they face.

After accidentally burning down an abandoned motel they used as a club house, the brothers get sprayed by a raccoon. In order to get rid of the smell, they have to bath in tomato juice. The oldest brother then threatens to tell their dad that the younger brothers burned down the motel if they do not do him sexual favours and he then proceeds to sexually abuse them. It then becomes clear that the younger brothers are doing drugs and playing the “pass out  game” in order to numb themselves from their reality.

When the dad sees that what a mess they have made with the tomato juice, he beats the boys and Wind runs away. The youngest brother meanwhile plays the “passed out game” and ends up killing himself. The result of all those factors is why Wind tries to kill himself, but he doesn’t fall through with it. The spirit of his little brother helps him free himself.


The organizers around Huff did a great job of making sure that it was known that the contents of the play were going to be heavy and that some people might find it difficult to watch. I went into the play knowing and accepting this, so I was surprised that when I left the performance, I had felt under-prepared for what I had just witnessed. I feel like no “trigger warning” could have prepared someone for the violence that was portrayed.

My first thoughts of the play were that the overall performance was very well done. Cardinal did a fantastic job of acting so many different characters and making me forget it was all one person. I enjoyed the simplicity of the set and I felt that the minimal props complimented the the minimal or lack of multiple actors. I found it interesting the way Cardinal interacted with the audience. Rather than just purely “breaking the fourth wall”, I felt that the audience was an active role in the play. But, as with Jack Charles, I am not sure what that “role” was that we were playing. Were we witnesses? The enemies? Other? Making medicine?

While I did enjoy the play, it left me with a lot of thoughts and questions. I was not sure if the play emphasized enough that these awful realities are direct consequences of colonialism and its on-going effects. I wonder how I would have perceived or understood this performance if I did not have any context about colonialism in Canada. Might I have just thought that that First Nations have difficult lives on reserves? At the same time, maybe this play is not intended for someone who does not have any context. This leads me to thinking about who was the attended audience and what was the purpose of the play?

Nolan reminded me in Medicine Shows how after all the trauma and abuse Wind is face with, Wind does not commit suicide (31). Nolan states how “the telling of these stories…is a political act of resistance” and how these stories are based on the fact that “in spite of everything [Indigenous people] are still here” (31).

5 thoughts on “Huff: Biography, Synopsis and Witnessing”

  1. *This is my presentation that I prepared, but was not able to present due to timing. Thank you to my group and Proffesor Dangeli for covering for me*

  2. Great post and excellent questions Meggan!

    This performance made me ask many of the same questions. The role of the audience seemed to slip back and forth between active participants (the beginning and end suicide scene), to imaginary friends whose main purpose was to keep secrets, to passive witnesses with no power to intervene, and so on.

    Cardinal’s playful representation of Huff in interviews, along with the content of this play, also made me concerned that audiences who are unfamiliar with First Nations issue or who don’t actually know First Nations people would see this as representative of us as a whole. Cardinal uncritically engagement in dialogue about Huff can come across as normalizing the issues of drug abuse, sexual abuse, and suicide. In terms of audience, I think his work is drawing in more non-Indigenous people than Indigenous people. Could this piece do more bad medicine (in Nolan’s sense of the term), in terms of perpetuating stereotypes, and re-traumatizing those that have been abused, than good?

    1. I was wondering the same thing. I think I might explore this relationship between the audience and the performance of Huff in my next performance essay.

  3. Hello Meggan and Dr. Dangeli,

    It definitely felt like the role of the audience was in the control of Cardinal. He conducted the moments of laughter or the passive moments for us. Do you think this control shifts in accordance to the audience on the different nights the production was showed?

    As for the interviews, do you think Cardinal still continues to play the role of the Trickster?

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