Jack Charles: Synopsis and Witnessing



Protocol: Acknowledgement that this performance was taking place on unceded Coast Salish land.

The performance started with Charles moulding clay on a pottery wheel while the three membered band, who remained on stage from the length of the play, played music. Projected behind him was footage from the documentary Bastardly that showed Charles shooting heroin. When the footage ended, the lights came on and revealed the stage. The stage was set up as if it were Charles’s house or living area. There was a pottery area, a living room, and a kitchen area with a tea pot and kettle.

Right after the footage end, Charles stood up and started talking about his life. He started with his heritage and childhood and slowly went into talking about his acting career and his life of substance abuse and crime.

The play ended with Charles changing into formal clothes and addressing the audience as if he was in court and the audience was the judge. He was arguing for the right to have his criminal record cleared due to the fact that what led him into his life of crime was the physical, sexual, and mental abuse he faced from being taken from his family and put into residential school where he was isolated from his culture.


I attended the last performance of Jack Charles v. the Crown that showed in Vancouver on January 23, 2016. I really enjoy watching plays, but I did not know what to expect for this one because I have never watched a play where there was only one actor. From the first word Charles said, I knew that I would not have any difficultly watching only him for 75 minutes. Charles is a very animated, and captivating performer who has a stage presence that demands the attention of the audience. While he was talking about serious and upsetting issues, he did a brilliant job of bringing in humour without trivializing the topics being discussed.

After reading Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington, I was interested in listening to how Charles’ experienced residential school in Australia, and how it compared/contrasted to residential schools in Canada. Yet, I learned very quickly that this play was not a history lesson. Charles gave a brief, but personal, account of his life and he did not dwell on the details of the abuse that he was subjected to in his past. In Medicine Shows, Nolan states how “good medicine” is about making connections and community (2) and it seems that Charles did this by making connections with Indigenous people in Australia and Canada.

The part of the play that intrigued me the most was the last section when Charles addressed the audience as if we were a judge or jury and he was arguing to have his criminal record erased. Due to the fact he was addressing the audience as if we were the Australian state, I could not help but feel uncomfortable and I was not sure why. When reflecting on this, I think it is because he broke the “fourth wall” and was speaking to us saying how “you did this”. While he was talking about Australia, I could not help feel guilty as a settler here in Canada.

Overall, I really enjoyed this performance. I found it to be not only interesting and educational, but entertaining and beautiful to witness. I do wish that I could see it a second time though because I feel that I would get more out of it. There was a lot of speech through the play and it was difficult to catch everything.

3 thoughts on “Jack Charles: Synopsis and Witnessing”

  1. Great post Megan!

    I think the observation that you, and many others in class, made about how the dynamic between Jack and the audience changed when he addressed us as though we were the Judges is an important one. Not only did the power dynamics shift, and for many guilt set in, but I think that it also it made us all consider what we would do if we were in a place of state-power. It made me wonder how many people in that position (judges, attorneys, etc.) have seen Jack’s play? How can this work he created, which is so well research, and probably back by all the same document he will use in court, be used to clear his record? I doubt that judges will consider allowing his play to take place in a court room, which is ridiculous because court rooms are another type of performance, but if they did, what would be the result?

    Also if they clear Jack’s record, image the hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people that could have their record cleared using his case as a precedent. It really is an ingenious work.

  2. Thanks Meggan – a very insightful witnessing of the play. It makes me wish I had saw it as well. I’m interested in what you brought up about how Jack Charles used humor as a way to talk about serious issues. Many Indigenous people (for example Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian”) use humor as a way of confronting colonial violence and trauma, sometimes because it is the only way for them to discuss it, others because it is an access point for these discussions, and sometimes it allows for some relief from the pain and difficulties. It would be nice to think more about this topic in relation to the work we see in this class. Awesome article that brings up important topics and questions!

  3. Yes, I agree that humour can be a very powerful tool and Jack Charles uses it so well. It is a good way for a connection to be made between the audience and performer!

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