02 April 2018

"Staging Our Native Nation"

Article 4

[Rob Weinert-Kendt’s “Raising Native Voices, Then Amplifying Them,” below, is the first article in this series I’m posting on Rick On Theater that doesn’t appear in the print edition of the Theatre Communication Group’s American Theatre; it’s published only on AT’s website.  In his piece, Weinert-Kendt presents an interview with Randy Reinholz, co-founder, with his wife, actress Jean Bruce Scott, of Native Voices, an organization that supports and promotes theater by the United States’ indigenous peoples.  Hosted now at the Autry Museum of the American West In Los Angeles (founded by and named for the original “singing cowboy,” Gene Autry), New Voices was launched 25 years ago at the University of Illinois, where Reinholz was a professor, and has been working for a quarter of a century toward a surge of interest in and focus on native American theater.

[As always, I urge ROTters to go back and read Articles 1 and 2 if you haven’t yet.  “Native Women Rising” by Madeline Sayet was posted on 24 March, Frances Madeson’s “Indigenous States” on 27 March, and “Law of Nations” by Celia Wren on 30 March.]

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

After years of nurturing writers and performers, the work of L.A.’s Native American theatre is finally paying off.

If there is a resurgent tide of Native American voices in the American theatre of late—and based on the stories in this special issue, there certainly seems to be—a lot of the credit can be traced to a seemingly unlikely place: a theatre program that runs out of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. Randy Reinholz, who has run Native Voices at the Autry with his wife, Jean Bruce Scott, for 20 years, was at first skeptical himself about partnering with the institution named for the singer of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” But to his pleasant surprise, he found that the Autry had a real appetite for telling the whole story of the conquest and settlement of the American West in all its bloody complications and from all perspectives, including Native Americans’.

So this actor, director, and theatre professor, a member of Oklahoma’s Choctaw nation who’d started Native Voices a few years before at Illinois State, relocated the program to L.A., where the Native population, the nation’s second-highest, numbers more than 50,000, and film and TV opportunities have attracted many of the nation’s Native actors and writers.

Native Voices has since found not only a local audience for their work but a national one: Their roster now includes more than 34 full productions, 20 tours, 23 new-play festivals, and 13 playwrights’ retreats. The impact of their training and nurturing generations of Native talent is harder to measure, but it has clearly paid dividends in both the quantity and quality of artists now working at all levels throughout the American theatre, from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Off the Rails, Reinholz’s own Native-themed riff on Measure for Measure, played last year, to Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, where Reinholz recently directed the premiere of Lucas Rowley’s dark comedy William, Inc.

I spoke to Reinholz recently about the slow but sure rise of Native theatre and the challenges.

ROB WEINERT-KENDT: One reason we decided to do a special issue on Native American theatre is that this seems to be a moment of raised or renewed consciousness about Native artists and themes, both at culturally specific institutions and at historically white theatres. But obviously this is not new to you.

RANDY REINHOLZ: Right. Actually this is what our plan was: to make a path for Native people into the professional theatre. It took longer than we thought, and we’re glad to see it happen. As you know, theatre’s so collaborative, and obviously it takes money, but it also takes a building, a space, a staff to make it happen. And as we started trying to move our storefront ideas into proper theatre spaces—that just took longer than most of us expected.

In addition to the influence of your organization, why do you think this wave of Native work is cresting now?

I think it’s generational. Certainly Spiderwoman, Hanay Geiogamah, Tomson Highway, Bill Yellow Robe were a generation before, and they were allowed in the back door of the theatre occasionally. But Native Americans were mostly told, “You can’t act because there aren’t plays by Native Americans, and you can’t write because there are no Native actors.” So there was a prejudice, and a self-fulfilling prophecy by well-resourced theatre institutions, that Native Americans simply weren’t part of the discussion or part of the reflection.

I’m a first-generation college student in my family. I think higher education was accessible for a number of folks, and it seems that theatre wants people with those credentials, particularly in administrative positions, working within the system. I had the privileged position of being at a university, so I had health insurance and a salary. A number of us had institutional positions where we were the one Native person who somehow broke the mold. Then we made space for this new generation, and you have a number of artists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are really making some noise now.

And I think theatres were embarrassed. I remember at the TCG National Conference in San Diego [2014], it was the first time that there were spaces identified as safe affinity spaces for black, Latino, Asian. And there were also a large number of Native Americans there, about 8 or 10, and at about the third meeting where people were talking about what was going on, I said, “You have to come up with a phrase where you mention there are Native people in the audience, because even people of color are erasing us.” I think that was a consciousness-raising moment for the people of color in TCG.

How did Native Voices get started, and how did it end up at a Western heritage museum named for a Hollywood cowboy?

First of all, something that would be interesting to put somewhere in your article, is that our papers are archived now at the Autry, and we’re looking to make them available digitally. Our hope is that we can make readily known the strategies we employed, the kinds of funders we had, and how our evolution progressed, so that the next generation of companies can happen faster. We need these companies geographically spread throughout the country.

So I was a professor at Illinois State, and they liked a Moliere play I directed, so they asked me to direct a contemporary play from my culture. I didn’t know of any Native scripts; I’d always wanted to work on Native plays, I just didn’t know any. We met Bill Yellow Robe and we learned of Native Earth in Toronto, a company founded by Tomson Highway and Larry Lewis. We went up to see their staged readings, met Drew Hayden Taylor, who was the artistic director at that time and is a wonderful playwright. He shared some of his favorite plays. And we met Joseph Dandurand and Marie Clements—she’s a Governor’s General Award winner in Canada. [The Governor Generals Awards are a collection of annual awards presented by the Governor General of Canada, recognizing distinction in numerous academic, artistic, and social fields. ~Rick] They became our first cohort, and we brought them to Illinois State in 1993 to see if a predominantly white institution could adequately serve Native playwrights and mount a Native play. From that we learned that we had Native students, and people who had been disenfranchised within their own program. It was my second year at Illinois State.

We had this gathering called Native Voices. We read the plays, and saw how they fit on our students. We found a play we could produce, and we did the same thing again the following year, ’94 and ’95. From that work, we started meeting some other people who were working in Native communities. We were actors in Los Angeles, so we used to return there each summer, and we went over to the Autry to say hello. They were anxious for us to look at some of their exhibitions and galleries from a Native perspective. You know, it’s very difficult to look at Western history, particularly 30 years ago, with a Native lens, because it was mostly about conquest and colonization. We were a little embarrassed, wondering how we would say anything to the Autry—but it turned out they actually wanted to have a difficult conversation and to bring their own institution into the 21st century. We soon realized that one of the best things we could do would be to put Native people in charge of their own stories on stages, with examples of the issues in Native communities in Indian country and in America. We started in 1999 with Marie Clements’s one-woman show, Urban Tattoo.

So the Autry had an appetite for tough stories, and we found an audience in Los Angeles that also was interested in that. Our audiences tend to be about 30 to 40 percent Native, depending on the year. Then there’s also a theatre community in Los Angeles that is mostly denigrated and marginalized by the East Coast, it seems, and they were anxious to be part of another voice being enfranchised.

So here we are 20 years later, making space for Native people to be the center of a play, at a time when Native people have mostly stood to the side and said “yes” and “no” as actors. As they got the chance to play leads in stories that resonated from their own cultures, you started seeing a lot more Native people showing up in theatre and on television, so that when Oregon Shakespeare Festival went to cast my play Off the Rails a few years ago, they were confident they could find the actors. Actors Equity let them know there were 39 Equity members that had Native American heritage in the United States, and they were shocked. There are a lot more in the Screen Actors Guild, because television is hiring Native people. That paradigm is moving now. People are starting to feel less like outsiders in that conversation, and thinking, “I could do something.”

It does seem that if you’re doing a play anywhere in the U.S. that requires Native actors, you need to go to L.A. and talk to Native Voices. It reminded me of that way East West Players started both as a theatre company to stage their own work but also as a talent database for Asian-Pacific Islanders. Have you compared notes or talked shop with other culturally specific theatres or theatres of color?

Yeah, we get together and talk a lot: East West Players, Latino Theatre Company, Robey Theatre Company. Tim Dang of East West chaired a board for the L.A. Arts and Culture Commission for the county, and we met for two years to talk about what we could do to better represent the populations in the county. Maybe because our population is large in this region, we kind of merit a demographic consideration, a political consideration, that other parts of the country feel comfortable ignoring. But I think as the country starts to come to grips with our love for violence and the taking of things, we will start to think more about what happened in Native communities, and perhaps have some interest in that part of our history. We’ve been so excited about erasing that part of our history as a country.

So, yes, we have benefited so much from speaking with and working strategically with other communities. But Native Americans are different, in that this was once Indian land.

Whenever we write about theatre work among communities that have been marginalized that are now getting their story told in some way, we think about three components: their stories being told at all; members of that community getting the opportunity to write and perform the work; and finally theatres developing longterm audiences among that community. It sounds to me like all those components were part of your strategic thinking.

Also, you provide training for people at each of those levels. That’s been a big part of Native Voices. So at times we’ve provided acting classes. We certainly have always provided playwriting opportunities and places to make work. We’ve had some ensemble and group creative work. Each of those phases are things that normal theatre artists just expect to encounter, probably through their theatre training or a multitude of professional experiences where they get those opportunities. And Native artists—again, when you relegate everyone to “yes sir,” “no sir,” “that way,” “this way” lines, you sort of guarantee they’ll never be brought into the process.

So that’s been the strategy: to get the artists in position to deliver the work, so when they’re seen by the greater professional community, they hold up. They look like they belong. They don’t look like an anomaly, or it’s charity work, or at an Indian request.

The play you just directed at Perseverance, William, Inc. [Jan.-Feb. 2018], sounds pretty wild. Tell me about it.

Well, we’ve been working in Alaska since 2010. My wife’s family has been there since the ’70s, going back and forth. That particular play is so specifically Alaskan. Native people are organized as corporations in Alaska, not as tribes, by the U.S. government. Of course, that has all the advantages and shortfalls of any government that focuses on the bottom line in its attempt to serve people. And so the writer took that set of given circumstances and turned it into this sort of absurd look at what it means to be Native in Alaska—dealing with substance abuse, sexual abuse, violence. It’s incredibly funny, but you sort of have to be deeply aware of Alaskan issues for the jokes to land. In Alaska, it’s hysterical, but I don’t see it playing too much in the lower 48.

What struck me is that it doesn’t sound at all like a dutiful historical drama, and that some of the writing that’s emerging from Native artists seems to genre-bending, time-hopping, meta-theatrical, playing with the form in ways we’re familiar with now in the age of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Young Jean Lee. Is that a trend you’re seeing too?

I totally see where that view comes to you with this particular set of 2017-18 plays. Perhaps my longer view is, after the intentional stifling of Native voices in American culture, the first thing the group does when they get their voice back is talk about the oppression. So for the first decade in the States, and certainly the first 20 years in Canada, Native theatre was all about this systematized effort to oppress and colonize. Also, any Native play that aspires to reach beyond a Native audience has to deal with the fact that the audience doesn’t know much about Native people, is filled with intentional misinformation about Native people.

But that’s sort of the first play a playwright writes: They write from their own experience. You start to hear about families, and then from families, you start to hear other kinds of issues. And we have a group of theatre artists now writing their 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th play, and they’ve got other things to talk about.

Off the Rails was 30 percent Shakespeare and 70 percent invention, and it’s all about the boarding school system. It’s a piece of history, but we realized we couldn’t approach that piece of history from a realistic standpoint, because how do you stage cultural genocide? Atrocity is pretty tough to put on a stage, and ask anybody to stay. So we looked at comedy.

Maybe another way to ask a similar question is to ask not whether Native theatre artists are developing plays that bend or break the dominant Western forms, but what have Native artists brought to the form from their own cultures? Is there a Native aesthetic?

Yeah, a couple things. Diane Glancy, one of our more accomplished Native playwrights, talks about how Native plays will always have reciprocity. And part of that is: I tell a story, which makes you think of your story, which shakes loose her story. And then when she tells me her story in return, I really start to understand my story, new and deeper. Native stories by and large are just retelling old stories with a teaching piece meant for cultural wisdom. So that’s a big hallmark of Native plays. Often they’re more interesting after you’ve heard them and thought about them a few times.

Another thing that happens, not in all Native plays, but in a lot of Native plays—there are a lot of spirits onstage. There are a lot of other people, from other worlds. A play like Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty [see Article 3, 30 March], you might say it ping-pongs back and forth between the present and the past. But a Native way of looking at that might be that those are just spirits that augment the contemporary story, and you can’t really understand the contemporary story unless you know this information that the spirits are bringing.

I would say, too, that music is interpreted differently. There’s almost always music and dance in Native plays. And the music has different meanings based on how well you know it. It’s easy to make a parallel with Western cultures in terms of ideas of faith: If you come from a system of faith, there are certain songs that come from that tradition that have different meaning to people who come from that faith than people who are outsiders to that faith. And Native songs, vocables often, have absolute meaning to people from those traditions, even though it’s not concrete language.

There are certain pieces of Native songs that are shared well across tribal identities. Still, you know, we have over 500 tribes in the country, with distinct languages, traditions, and cultures. How do we cross those boundaries? In some ways, I hope that’s what Native theatre brings to the country: the answers to the problems we’re facing as a country. How do we move beyond the isolationism that’s in vogue at the moment into bigger conversations with the rest of the people we should be in conversations with?

So things are looking up for Native artists and theatres, and you’ve accomplished a lot in the decades Native Voices has been around. What challenges do you see ahead for Native theatre?

What comes up in the TCG conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion is, what’s a healthy ecosystem for Americans and American theatre? I think there has to be a way of continuing to support emerging Native voices as Native identity continues to evolve, and the idea of what it means to be Native American is not always influenced by suicide, addiction, violence, degradation. What are the other pieces of what it means to be Native American? And then, how are those voices supported and nurtured so that they belong to an American theatre that is not relegated to the storefronts and the emerging artists, never to be part of the professional system?

One exciting thing that happened after Off the Rails is that there are now nine, maybe 10, Native actors in the company at Oregon Shakes this season, and Mary Kathryn’s play there now, Manahatta,only has six Native roles. So those actors are part of the company now. They’re not just there to do this narrow set of Native roles. And that was super intentional on OSF’s part. You know, not every American theatre needs to follow that. They all have their own communities to serve and axes to grind. So where would be some places we could fit in? You know, William, Inc. is the third play written by a Native, directed by a Native, with a predominantly Native cast at Perseverance, and they’ve got another one on the books for next season and two more in the pipeline.

Who else is gonna do that work? Where does it belong? And how are we not going to put all the marginalized voices in competition for a few dollars? What does the industry want and need, and how can it benefit from these diverse voices? And what are the revenue streams?

These are all the questions on your mind at Native Voices.

Certainly. My wife and I, Jean Bruce Scott, are the co-founders, and next year will be our 20th anniversary in Los Angeles, and our 25th altogether. And if everything goes according to schedule, we’ll announce the new leadership of Native Voices in the next generation. So what does that mean, what does it become, and then how does that fit into a greater whole? You don’t need a beacon of hope. That might be a good sales pitch, but it’s a terrible way to make theatre. We need to have an ecosystem. And how do we fit with the East West Players, Latino Theater Company, Robey Theater Company?

And, though we often look to the large organizations, maybe there are coalitions in midsize professional companies. Maybe that’s part of the answer, rather than constantly looking to LORT theatres for everything. It seems LORT theatres are exhausted from trying to serve all these constituencies.

[Rob Weinert-Kendt is editor-in-chief of American Theatre.  He was the founding editor-in-chief of Back Stage West and writes about theater for the New York TimesTime Out New York, and the Los Angeles Times.  He studied film at USC and is a composer member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop.

[The next article in AT’s “Staging Our Native Nation” series will be posted on 5 April.  A list of Native American theaters and resources and the names of more than 100 living Native American writers and theatermakers will be posted after the final installment of this series.  The AT series, including those articles that appear in the print edition of the magazine, are available on the TCG website, accessible from https://www.americantheatre.org/category/special-section/native-american-theatre/.]

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