Xavier Watso alterNatives

Xavier Watso on his role in the Centaur’s upcoming play, alterNatives

An interview with the Montreal actor, powwow emcee and TikTok activist about Drew Hayden Taylor’s play, his upbringing in an Odanak community in Yamaska, his recent career switch and more.

Xavier Watso is a man of many talents: actor, activist, powwow emcee, former high school drama teacher and TikTok influencer, to name a few.

An Abenaki person originally hailing from Yamaska, Watso’s become a celebrity of sorts on the video-sharing platform recently, where his content — which focuses on his culture and Indigenous activism — has earned him more than 49,000 followers. With an APTN TV series coming up next year, Watso is costarring in the upcoming production of Drew Hayden Taylor alterNatives at Centaur Theatre, where he plays the character of Bobby.

Dave MacIntyre: Tell me more about alterNatives.

Xavier Watso: The play is a dinner party with three couples. We have one couple who are middle class, vegan, white veterinarians. We’ve got a couple who’s inviting all of these people together: a young Indigenous writer and an English literature professor at a university. They’re a newly formed couple. There’s this other couple, who are two Indigenous old friends of the main character. They were invited by the new girlfriend without the main character knowing, because they lost touch.

It’s a comedy, but there’s also a lot of truth being said about how people perceive Indigenous people, or how people believe they’re Indigenous because they have some sort of Indigenous blood flowing through their veins from their great-great-great grandmother a long time ago. There’s this big argument about vegetarianism, or veganism, going against hunting or culturally based harvesting of the land. All of this culminates into this kind of suburban dinner party fiasco. It blows up in everybody’s faces. There’s not one person who comes out of there unscathed.

DM: You’re playing the role of Bobby. Can you describe your character, Bobby?

Xavier Watso: I love Bobby, because I feel like I resonate a lot with (him). I used to be a teacher, but more than that, I used to be an Indigenous activist, during the Idle No More times. There are a lot of things Bobby says that I’ve actually said, when he confronts one of the other characters and he says, ‘Well, you say you have some Indigenous blood in you.’ It’s not hurtful, but you can’t say things like that, because it gives you a chance to control the narrative when you try to be part of something you’re not.

There’s that part, there’s the vegetarianism part, which is very interesting, because I used to be a vegetarian also. But I would also advocate for Indigenous rights for people to hunt. It’s very hard to be a vegetarian up north, in remote places. You can’t impose it. When I was a vegetarian or vegan, I would always say, “You can be whatever you want, but don’t try to impose it on other people.” There’s this discourse Bobby has that’s very interesting, too. He’s more of a rebel, but he’s also the comic relief in the play a little bit. He’s there to stir the pot. He’s always trying to get under the two white couples’ skins. He’s trying to get a rise out of them, to see how far he can push them and make them explode. I like that part of him. It’s very fun to play.

alterNatives is on at the Centaur from Oct. 17–Nov. 5

DM: How did you first develop an interest in drama and theatre?

Xavier Watso: Like I said, I used to be a teacher. I taught for 16 years in the Montreal school system. I was a drama teacher in high school, which is not at all the same thing as playing in a professional play at the Centaur! (laughs) But yeah, I used to do theatre when I was in CEGEP and in university, then I started teaching it to my students. In the past year or two, because of TikTok, TV and everything I’d been doing on the side, I quit teaching last June. Since then, I’ve been doing all kinds of different things. This play came up. I knew some of the actors in it, I knew the director, the person in charge of the play. There was an audition for this character that I decided to take last December. 

I didn’t even believe I would get the part. I just wanted to try it out, because it seemed like fun. I got the part, so that cemented my decision to stop teaching, because I couldn’t do both. I do a lot of emceeing, so I have that background in me. But to play a character is something I hadn’t done for a long time. It’s fun, but it’s also terrifying to be onstage to do a real play. But the people here are so great. They’re giving me a lot of confidence. They’re helping me out a lot. It’s a cool team to be on. I’m very lucky to be working with all these great actors.

DM: Coming from the Odanak community in Centre-du-Québec, how did your environment shape you as a person and in the work you do?

Xavier Watso: Do you have half an hour? (laughs) I moved to Montreal when I was five. I think of myself as a true Montrealer, but I would go back to my community often, because all my family is there. I grew up far from my culture, my Abenaki traditions, and far from my language. Not because I didn’t want to, or because my parents didn’t want to teach them to me. It’s just because when my grandmother went to residential school, it was taken away from her. She wasn’t able to give it to my mother, who wasn’t able to give it to me. In my mid-20s, for the first time, there were going to be Abenaki-language courses in Montreal. My mother, my brother and I decided to go take those classes, just to see what it was like. Once I took that first class, I was hooked. That’s when I realized there was something about me that was missing, and that I needed to find and discover who I was. That was approximately 2012, I think. 

I started to do more, you know, for my community. I started emceeing the powwows in Odanak and in Wôlinak, which is the other Abenaki community. I was able to give back with what I was good at, which was emceeing. I felt like I was part of something. When I started TikTok two years ago, that’s when I started talking about Indigenous issues. I started talking about language through my account. That’s when my account blew up. It went really, really fast from 25,000 followers in the first year to 50,000 in the second. I realized I needed to learn about my language and about who I was, but also by teaching it to others, not only did it help me, but it helped others realize who they were a little.

DM: At what point did you realize, ‘Oh shit, TikTok could really help my career’?

Xavier Watso: I’ve never thought of it that way, because my career was being a teacher. I loved being a teacher and never thought I was going to do anything else. I was just having fun through the app. I’ve always wanted to leave my mark, change the world and help others. I was doing that activism through TikTok — being a teacher by day and Batman by night. (laughs

When I got the role of Bobby last December, I knew I was going to have to quit teaching. That’s when, starting in January, I decided to focus more on what I was going to do, and how I was going to be able to use that app to further my career. In the past six months, I’ve been using it more and more that way. But then again, I think it’s served its purpose. It’s already put me on the Quebec map of traditional media. Even now, I still do it just for fun. I don’t see it as work. I do it when I want to do it, and I talk about what I want to talk about. ■

alterNatives will be performed at the Centaur Theatre (453 St-François-Xavier) from Oct. 17 to Nov. 5, various times, $30–$68

This articles was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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