[Back in 1996, when I was reading scripts for the Gypsy Road Company’s 21st Century Playwrights Festival, I read Call the Serpent God to Me by M. Elena Carrillo, a native of southern Texas with Tejano and Native American roots. I never saw a performance of Serpent God, and I have no idea what became of the play or playwright after I filed my evaluation, but I’ve often recalled that play, which I found a remarkable theatrical creation. Carrillo incorporated images drawn from her American (Catholic), Tejano, and Aztec heritages in her dramaturgy, using both visual imagery and performative techniques from her various traditions.
[I knew little about Native American theater before reading Serpent God and I’ve learned only a general outline of its appearance and development as part of the American theater scene since then, but I’ve felt that it’s a remarkable cultural phenomenon. When I opened my April issue of American Theatre the other evening and started reading “Staging Our Native Nation,” a series on native peoples’ theater—which also covers the theatrical efforts of native Hawaiians and Inupiat (native Alaskans)—I discovered how far along the phenomenon has come.
[In a very real sense, native American theater artists have invented our first truly indigenous theater. Mainstream American theater, including African-American drama, is pretty much an adoption of existing European theater forms; we merely put an American stamp on it. Indigenous peoples have taken the basic form of Western theater (as well as the performance forms of other cultures, I presume), and adapted it to tell their stories and, what’s more, incorporate their techniques of storytelling, including traditional music, dance, and ritual.
[I’m republishing this series of eight articles about indigenous American theater, from the Theatre Communications Group’s AT of April 2018 (volume 35, number 4) to share this conversation about an under-covered part of American theater with ROTters. (Some of the AT articles don’t appear in the print edition of the magazine, but are available on the TCG website; the whole series is accessible from https://www.americantheatre.org/category/special-section/native-american-theatre/.) The first installment, “Native Women Rising” by Madeline Sayet (a Mohegan Indian from Connecticut), appears below; the rest of the AT series will follow at three-day intervals. ~Rick]
NATIVE WOMEN RISING
by Madeline Sayet
Why three premieres in Oregon are a sign of the times—and a long time coming.
This doesn’t happen every season: In Oregon this April, you can see three new plays by Native women produced at major resident theatres. Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play will be performed at Artists Repertory Theatre April 1-29; DeLanna Studi’s And So We Walked will be up at Portland Center Stage at the Armory March 31-May 13; and Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta opens at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival March 28 and runs through Oct. 27. If you stop through Portland on your way to or from Ashland in April, you could see all three in one trip.
While the timing of this convergence is unique, FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota), Nagle (Cherokee), and Studi (Cherokee) are in no way new to the American theatre. They’ve made it this far because of their creativity, their community and ancestral support, and their unflinching belief that Native stories matter and will be told. Also: Their plays are really good. They vary widely in genre, as do the origins of each story. Each play has the ability to make you laugh and open your eyes to see the world around you in unexpected ways.
Indeed, opening eyes to an unacknowledged world was a key impulse behind Nagle’s Manahatta. As a member of the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in New York City in 2013, she realized that none of her non-Native colleagues knew the story of the Lenape people whose land the theatre stood on. She knew that was the story she needed to write there.
For her part, Studi had been having dreams since she was a child of walking the Trail of Tears with her dad to find out where her family came from. So when a director asked about her dream project, she knew that was the story she needed to tell.
And FastHorse began The Thanksgiving Play in Ireland while staying in Tyrone Guthrie’s historic house on a fellowship from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis that provided her with the space and time to create.
But there was another prompt behind each project as well. Each of these women had been told countless times, in countless ways, that there was no room for Native stories in the American theatre. So these plays emerged not only from the writers’ storytelling impulse but also out of their drive to create Native plays that would make it to the stage. These playwrights are the kind of people who don’t tell you you’re wrong about something; they meet you where you are and show you something you need to see.
As the narrative of each of these plays illustrates, the silencing of Native stories is common. It is also catastrophic for Native culture and community, and for the policies that affect us. For us, the stories we tell are a matter of life and death. Traditional Native storytelling molds itself to the shape of the given moment and to what is needed. The narratives we put onstage therefore have direct consequences in shaping our world.
The U.S. theatre community seems to be acknowledging that fact, examining its practices and its roots. And what American roots run deeper than indigenous stories? Yet what American stories have been more mistold and silenced than those of Native Americans?
In many ways these three plays stand as powerful acts of defiance against the silencing of Native voices. They are also savvy hybrids of indigenous philosophies and Western theatre. After all, what good is writing an amazing play if the American theatre won’t produce it?
Larissa FastHorse has been told that her plays don’t get second or third productions due to casting demands. There is a widespread misconception in the theatre field that casting indigenous actors is an impossible task. So she removed that excuse by writing a play that can be performed with four white or white-passing actors in a single setting.
“The play is still dealing with indigenous issues and the indigenous experience in America,” FastHorse insists. “The whole play is a metaphor for the invisibility of indigenous people in the narrative.”
Meanwhile, artistic directors told Nagle they were only interested in telling contemporary stories, and that Native stories take place in the past, to which she responded: “If you think our stories from the past are not relevant to what is happening today, let me show you how the past is the present.” The interlocking dramatic structure she applied to connect characters across generations when working on Manahatta as part of the Public’s Emerging Writers Group has found its way into many of her plays since, because it illustrates the historic ripples of every law we make and every story we tell.
As Nagle puts it, “So you think what happened to the Lenape on Manahatta island is something from the 1600s, not relevant today? What do you think 2008 was about on Wall Street? How do you critique Wall Street as an institution when it began as an institution that took homes from the Lenape? That no one talks about. You can’t critique it and not tell the full narrative.”
Studi is an actor who hadn’t intended to become a playwright, but like many performers from marginalized communities, limited options drove her to create her own opportunities. “People don’t think of me when they’re just casting a play like Romeo and Juliet,” Studi explains. “They only think of me when they think of Native roles. That was something I got frustrated with. I wanted more. I wanted a challenge—and I got tired of waiting for people to write a role for me.”
So in her solo show And So We Walked, she challenges herself with many complex roles, showcasing new possibilities.
The takeaway, if you missed it: indigenous peoples are alive today, and not all of their stories come from “somewhere else.” When you look around you, do you know the stories of the place you are in? Or of the contemporary indigenous people who live there? How many indigenous street names do you blindly drive past every day without wondering what they mean? If we are the storytellers of America, and we ignore the indigenous stories of America, is it any wonder that the American theatre has something of an inferiority complex vis a vis Britain?
So if this year is a big year for Native theatre—and it does seem to be—I wanted to know why. These artists have been doing great work and building their craft for years. What’s different about now?
FastHorse, who has had her plays (including What Would Crazy Horse Do? and Urban Rez) produced around the country for more than 10 years, typically as the only Native voice there, credits the influence of Theatre Communications Group (TCG), on whose board she currently sits.
“They have been providing space at both the national conference and the Fall Forum for a good four or five years now to allow myself, Ty Defoe, and other indigenous folks to have a platform at the conference, a national voice—again and again and again. Just being able to have people realize we are here, we exist, we are actually in your theatre town and you could be producing a local playwright who is indigenous, and beyond that, you have a responsibility to do that to honor the people on whose land you are standing.”
FastHorse thinks that message is now being heard, and she has enjoyed hearing increasingly good news from theatres about how they have developed new relationships with local indigenous artists.
Nagle pointed to the work that has been done by Native theatre artists in past decades to pave the way.
“You look at what playwrights like Bill Yellow Robe, Diane Glancy, Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Suzan Harjo, and Spiderwoman Theatre, what they’ve been doing for decades—I think that laid the groundwork for what our generation is now coming in and doing. There have been a fair amount of battle cries from Native artists saying, ‘Why aren’t you producing Native plays? Why aren’t you producing Native plays? Why aren’t you producing Native plays?’” She laughs: “So in many ways it’s kind of easy to show up now and be like, ‘Hey guys, why aren’t you producing Native plays?’ when people have been saying it for decades.” (An exhaustive list of Native playwrights, theatres, and resources can be found here.)
Nagle also believes that the 2016 standoff between federal authorities and Native peoples and their supporters over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was a game changer in the conversation, because its story affected people so deeply. Suddenly the conversation moved from the assumption that Native stories weren’t relevant to people wanting to know what they could do to help. Her advice: Produce a Native play.
“The reason things like Standing Rock happen—that a corporate oil company can literally, the day after a tribe files an affidavit marking where their ancestors are buried, where their sacred sites are—you know why the next day that corporation can show up with bulldozers and bulldoze 27 burials? Because no one puts Native narratives in the media or on the stage.”
Nagle, whose play Sovereignty was produced at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage earlier this year (story here), is thrilled that theatres are stepping up to tell these stories. She believes this will have a wider impact on people’s understanding of contemporary indigenous issues.
Studi also feels that Native stories are rising to meet the current moment. “I feel with our current political climate and our current president that a lot of our people feel like they are not being heard,” Studi says. “I know I feel like the current political climate is trying to stifle my voice. That makes me fight even harder to get my voice out there, and if there is a time that our voice needs to be heard, it’s right now. It’s time.”
She’s also optimistic that Native stories, far from being checked off a list of token efforts, will only whet audiences’ appetite for more. “When we have people like Mary Kathryn Nagle, Larissa FastHorse, or William Yellow Robe go out and do their shows, the audiences are moved and they want to know more. Hopefully that will encourage those theatres to hire more Native playwrights and produce more Native plays.”
It is no accident that these leaders also happen to be women. In indigenous societies, women are often the story keepers. Still, everyone must contribute for a society to function. The complex structure of indigenous languages and cultures transcends gender binaries and hierarchies. America still has much to learn from Native people.
I have worked with and learned from these brilliant women in a variety of settings. These three theatre artists have also crossed paths with each other for some time, acting in each other’s plays and working together as activists, as when Nagle asked Studi to join her for a traveling piece about the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Sliver of a Full Moon.
Asked about their work, each describes a different approach. FastHorse describes her style as a kind of hyper-realism designed to get you to buy into a world, but where the entire play is a metaphor. Studi believes in the power of play, of modes of storytelling where things become other things and the audience jumps on board, not knowing where the journey will take them. And Nagle’s plays use real historical events and people to illustrate how everything is connected.
As a director and performer, I have been lucky to know these artists for a while. It began when I landed at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in the magical moment between 2005 and 2010, when Professor Karmenlara Ely offered an annual course on Native American theatre. I enrolled in the final term of that course, in which future theatremakers studied Hanay Geiogamah, Spiderwoman Theatre, William Yellow Robe, and Diane Glancy, and read two-spirit philosophy. As one of two Native students in a class on Native theatre, taught by a Native professor, I was transformed by this palpable shift into the seat of cultural normativity.
Before then, the only thing my classmates had consulted me on was Shakespeare, since prior to college, Shakespeare and traditional Native stories were considered my fields of expertise. Much of the contemporary American theatre we were taught seemed irrelevant to my experiences. But suddenly, my classmates wanted to know about my home. About Mohegan (my nation). About our art and philosophy. About our stories. For one semester, contemporary Native playwrights were canonized in the same way as the dead white men of our other courses. Students talked about Yellow Robe the way they talked about Shakespeare, Brecht, and Beckett—with reverence.
A few months later, I visited Maine to volunteer as a performer in a reading of one of Yellow Robe’s plays, and there began my role in Native theatre. That event led to acting in readings by Nagle and FastHorse, and then into directing. When I told Yellow Robe that my non-Native professors told me not to tell people I’m Native because it would hurt my career, he laughed. “There’s enough Indians pretending not to be Indians,” he said. And that was that. That relationship changed my life.
I appreciate the effect that moment had on me. And on others: My mom recently told me she heard kids at the tribal youth center marveling that a Mohegan (me!) made this year’s “Forbes 30 Under 30” list for doing Native theatre. This was a huge surprise to them; it meant you could become successful for promoting your culture. Cultural erasure wasn’t necessary for success after all.
Building a canon is also building a community. That is why, when Larissa FastHorse’s plays are produced, she requests that her work not be the only indigenous art in the building and that she not be the only indigenous artist working on the production. For a large part of her career she has been the first indigenous playwright, often even the first indigenous artist working at a given theatre. Many or most of those institutions lack a history of engagement with indigenous communities, and in some cases, even an awareness that their local indigenous communities exist.
“It can be very tokenistic when theatres say, ‘Now we are doing a black play, so now we are going to reach out to the black community,’ or, ‘Now we are doing a Native play, so now we are going to reach out to the Native community,’” FastHorse says. “It can come across like, we’re only interested in you now. So to me it was really important to say, let’s take what resources we have and put them behind uplifting other artists.”
She believes that form of engagement isn’t just a good first step for many theatres; it’s also something that most every theatre can afford to do in some way. This policy has led to many diverse partnerships between theatres and indigenous artists in their area. These take the form of readings, dance pieces, commissioned site-specific works, Native visual artists selling work in the lobby, even indigenous catering companies who go on to have long-term relationships with theatres.
“Saying I’m not the only indigenous person they are hiring means they have to think, who else can we hire?” FastHorse adds that this approach has been very successful everywhere she has worked.
The spirit of collaboration and cooperation runs deep, Studi says. She cites the Cherokee word “Gadugi,” which means “the coming together of people to celebrate, support, and promote each other. I feel like that’s what we do as Native women. The things I am saying about Larissa and Mary Kathryn, and I will shout them from the nearest rooftop if I have to, is that I can guarantee that when people come see their plays they’ll be like, ‘Oh, yes, exactly.’ What I’m speaking is the truth. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
So this April in Oregon, as FastHorse, Nagle, and Studi begin to make the canonization of Native plays the new normal, let’s take a moment to realize what a significant a time we are living in. The erasure of stories, like the erasure of languages and sovereignty, dehumanizes us. It turns us Native people into objects. That dehumanization enables a culture where the rates of violence against Native women are significantly higher than against our non-Native sisters. But our stories, like our complex languages, remind everyone that the world still has much to learn from the indigenous cultures that spring from this land.
[Madeline Sayet, a member of the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut, is a director, writer, and performer. For a list of Native American theaters and resources, and the names of more than 100 living Native American writers and theatermakers, see the final installment of this series.]