Cliff Cardinal’s solo ‘Huff’ at Kennedy Center offers a theatrical high

A U.S. premiere from Canada by the award-winning Cree actor and playwright.

At the start of this brave performance, we see on a dark stage a young man who is making a suicide attempt. He is wearing cargo pants, a tee, and sneaks and has a food-storage bag over his head. The plastic is duct-taped tight around his neck so there’s only so much air in there. He speaks to us, alarming us, about how few minutes he has before anoxia kicks in.

Finally at the very end of the solo show, he stands relaxed before us and gently speaks to us one word of release: “Breathe.” And in between that near death and that breath of life is a magical-realism narrative that ricochets between disturbing and lighthearted with such verve that at times it takes one’s own breath away.

Cliff Cardinal in ‘Huff.’ Photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

Nominated for Quebec’s 2016 Critic’s Awards, Huff is the creation of award-winning Cree actor and playwright Cliff Cardinal. The show, which is having its U.S. premiere at Kennedy Center, was incubated at Native Earth Performing Arts, Canada’s oldest professional Indigenous performing arts company.

The story Huff tells is about an Indigenous boy (the narrator) and his two brothers, one older and one younger. Their  mother, abused by their father, turned to drink and hanged herself. Now, living in poverty on the rez with that father and their stepmother, the boys get high by sniffing fumes from siphoned gasoline (hence the slang word huff). The oldest brother attempts suicide (the scene we saw first) and sexually abuses the middle one in the shower. The narrator seeks comfort from his kookum (Cree for grandmother). And infiltrating and disrupting the action throughout is the Trickster, mythic personification of unpredictability.

In a buzzed, bravura performance, Cardinal plays all these characters and more, shifting from one to another like a charismatic chameleon. Even as Cardinal is enacting mordant, taboo subject matter, there’s an infectious glee in his presence and an irresistible connection with the audience that convey inexplicable optimism and resilience. When Cardinal calls us his “imaginary friends” we believe him. And when he has us sworn in by literally shouting out our go-to swear words, we’re absolutely on board for the wild ride.

The stagecraft gets impressive in the light and sound cues, which punctuate and propel the storytelling with pinpoint precision and aural impact. But the set is simplicity itself. A chair, two crates, and a few props.

Cliff Cardinal in ‘Huff.’ Photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

There’s a funny bit when Clifford acts out an incident among students at a reservation school using brown beer bottles to represent the Indigenous kids and a beer can for the white one. And at another point he takes a Mason jar of tomatoes and dumps it into a basin, exclaiming in jest as he does so, “Look, I’m Mom!” He then proceeds to slather the tomatoes all over himself like blood, and the performance swings again from comic to caustic.

“I write stories that haunt me, that grab me and won’t let go,” Cardinal has said.

The play was written trying to show the spirit of really mischievous kids, who have a lot of joy and they’re also in a really hard situation. So my feeling is that the stage belongs to that spirit, and that spirit is mischievous, it’s chaotic, it’s unpredictable.

And there’s a lot of joy in this story. There’s a lot of joy. You know, when you’re a kid it’s about your imagination. You’re not sitting in every moment thinking about how sad things are; you’re thinking about how you can make them fun.

In a talkback on opening night, Clifford was asked whether the story in Huff, which felt intensely personal, was in fact autobiographical. He answered no, it’s fiction, by which he meant “the real lived experience plus the lie.”

In one of the show’s jokey scenes, one boy asks another what his “sacred gift from the Creator” is. The second boy answers by demonstrating. He inhales solvent fumes from a brown paper bag and blows into the mouth of the other boy, who promptly gets a rush. In a Tricksterish way, Cliff Cardinal’s own sacred gift from the Creator is very like that. He tells stories of his people and breathes life into them onstage so that we in turn can share in the high of his art.

Recommended for age 16 and up.

Huff plays February 6 to 8, 2020, at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to upcoming events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

Huff is a Native Earth Performing Arts production presented by the Kennedy Center’s World Stages Program

Written and Performed by Cliff Cardinal
Directed by Karin Randoja
Set and Costume Designer:  Jackie Chau
Lighting Designer:  Michelle Ramsay
Sound Designer:  Alex Williams
Stage Manager: Jennifer Stobart
Technical Director: Allan Day
Producer: Ryan Cunningham


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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