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Playwright Ken Mitchell remembers Saskatoon premiere of country music opera Cruel Tears

On this day in 1975, the Persephone Theatre debuted a play at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon that turned Canadian drama on its head.

Cruel Tears is a country music opera set on the Prairies and rooted in the storyline of Shakespeare’s Othello. The production helped demonstrate how groundbreaking cultural events could take place in the regions and not just major urban centres.

“It was the nomination of a different style that nobody else had really done before,” playwright Ken Mitchell tells Metro.

Mitchell began working on Cruel Tears the year before the Mendel premiere, when he visited Greece with his wife at the time. Upon returning to Saskatchewan in the summer of ’74, he connected with Brian Richmond, the first artistic director for the Persephone Theatre.

“(Richmond) was starting up this theatre company in Saskatoon and he heard I was working on a play that might be interesting for them,” Mitchell recalled. “He wanted to do original stuff… in his season that year.”

Although Mitchell already had plans to collaborate with a Toronto musician on the score, Richmond introduced him to a local folk group called Humphrey and the Dumptrucks who were eager get involved.

 Gary Walsh, Michael Taylor and Michael Miller of Humphrey and the Dumptrucks. Photo courtesy Persephone Theatre.

Gary Walsh, Michael Taylor and Michael Miller of Humphrey and the Dumptrucks. Photo courtesy Persephone Theatre.

“I thought that worked perfectly,” said Mitchell. “We wrote all winter long and it was quite an experience. Then (we) got set up at the Mendel Art Gallery and it just took off.”

The audiences loved it and Mitchell said evening performances were sold out at the end of the initial two-week run. But some critics were less than kind, as one city journalist accused him of ripping off the Bard.

For Mitchell, who grew up on a cattle ranch south of Moose Jaw, the pretense couldn’t be farther from the truth. His protagonist, Johnny, is a Ukrainian truck driver in Saskatoon who faces conflict after marrying into a wealthy Canadian family.

“You’ve got to speak the language of Saskatoon and locate the ordinary characters,” said Mitchell, which is why the Ukrainian trucker stands in for the Moorish general in Othello.

Eventually the tone of the reviews changed. Cruel Tears was presented in 1976 during the Montreal Olympics and went on to tour across the country.

“It successfully launched my career,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1999 and continues to work as a poet and writer. His old friend, Richmond, is currently staging a version of Cruel Tears in Victoria set on the Mexican border.

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