Exploring Ancestry and Identity

Les Filles du QUOI?, written and performed by Abby Paige in its world premiere production. Directed by Kim Bent, the production was bilingual (English and French, with subtitles) and ran at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier, June 16-26, 2022 (now closed)

Abby Paige as Jack Kerouac
Photo by John Snell, Lost Nation Theater

Les Filles du QUOI? (The Daughters of WHOM?) is an autobiographical exploration of ancestry and the quest for identity, especially among Quebecois and New Englanders of Quebecois descent. The very title is a deliberate reference to les filles du roi, the “daughters of the king,” a historical group of young French women whom the king recruited in the 1660s to emigrate to New France, marry French settlers, and so boost the population. Many Quebec residents today take pride in tracing their ancestry to les filles du roi. 

But what are we really trying to do when we claim certain people rather than others as ancestors? the acclaimed actor and playwright Abby Paige asks. What does it say about us that we are eager to attribute significance to our forebears?

Paige’s thoughts on this question are grounded in her own story. She grew up in Burlington, a descendant of French Canadian immigrants to Vermont. With those roots, she long identified as French Canadian. In 2008 she married a Canadian and emigrated to Quebec, expecting to fit in to her “home” culture like a glove. But after thirteen years, she still felt like an outsider and had finally to conclude that she is not French Canadian at all but French American.

Paige uses the show to interrogate the very issue of heritage itself. Using narrative fragments, she slips in and out of characters, including the novelist and poet Jack Kerouac (1922-69), the best-known Franco-American artist; and La Corriveau, a folkloric character who is said to haunt this region. La Corriveau is based on a real Quebec woman, Marie-Josefte Corriveau, who was executed by the British in 1763 and is Paige’s distant ancestor.

Like Paige herself, she observes, we look to our ancestors for identity, as we strive to make sense of our lives. Our ancestors become our bona fides, even conferring status. But it’s not fair to burden ancestors with making sense of our lives. “As soon as someone is dead,” she has La Corriveau saying, “you start to invent stories about them — and then you bury them underneath those stories.” And at another point she resolves, “I will not weaponize my ancestors!”

Riding on Paige’s narrative wings, we shift back and forth between past and present, English and French, New England and Quebec. Structurally, her piece is not a linear narrative, but interwoven story fragments. She leavens her serious subject with humor, leaving the audience laughing, relaxed, and thoughtful. For more on the show, visit Paige’s website here