08 April 2018

"Staging Our Native Nation

Articles 7 & 8

[Here are the final two articles in the American Theatre series, “Staging Our Native Nation.”  (A list of Native American theaters and resources, and the names of more than 100 living Native American writers and theatermakers, appears at the end of this post.)  As usual, I strongly recommend that Rick On Theater readers who haven’t read the foregoing pieces in this collection go back and read the earlier articles; the previous five installments began on 24 March and ran every three days until this concluding post.]

by Christie Honoré

[As far back as the mid-1880s, men of the Iroquois nation, mostly Mohawks (upstate New York, southern Quebec, and eastern Ontario), worked steel in  construction.  It began with bridge-building along the St. Lawrence River and moved into high-steel work on the skyscrapers of the early 20th century.  And where else is the modern skyscraper most prominent in this part of the world?  Why, New York City, of course, whose skyline has been dominated by tall buildings since before World War I.  The iron workers for most of those iconic New York City edifices have been Iroquois Indians for now well over 100 years.

[As you’ll read in Christie Honoré’s “Native Iron Workers and 9/11 Linked by ‘Mangled Beams,’” these same Native American high-steel workers, descendents of the men who built the Twin Towers in the 1960s and ’70s, were engaged in the recovery and clean-up at Ground Zero after the terrorist attack on 11 September 2001.  Honoré’s article, the seventh in my series from American Theatre’s “Staging Our Native Nation” special feature from the April 2018 issue, is about the new play, Mangled Beams, by Dawn Jamieson, which tells the stories of four of those steel workers.  It begins previews on 13 April at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres on West  53rd Street in Manhattan.  (The production will run through 29 April.)]

In Dawn Jamieson’s new play, four Iroquois high-beam walkers reckon with trauma past and present.

To find compelling inspiration for her next play, Cayuga-Iroquois [the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York] playwright Dawn Jamieson didn’t have to look very far. She was a member of the board of directors of the American Indian Community House in New York City [on the Lower East Side] when Native American iron workers came to town to join in the search-and-rescue effort around Ground Zero after 9/11.

“They were welcomed and given the support of other Native people, some who had come from the same reservations,” Jamieson said. “Later, some of the workers came to attend a support group there. After a few years, I contacted and interviewed some of them.”

Brad Bonaparte, a worker who died from cancer developed after exposure to the air at Ground Zero, became a particular inspiration. The characters in Jamieson’s Mangled Beams—opening April 19 at A.R.T./New York, in a production from NYC-based American Indian Artists Inc., a.k.a. AMERINDA [in the East Village]—are four Haudenosaunee (Iroquois [upstate New York]) high-beam walkers who contribute to the Ground Zero cleanup efforts. Along the way, these iron workers—whose trade tends to be passed down from father to son in Native American families—strive to reclaim their identity by untangling beams laid by their own ancestors.

Diane Fraher, the Osage [Great Plains] and Cherokee [American Southeast] artistic director of AMERINDA, was eager to support Jamieson’s project. “We are a community-based organization, so we have known Dawn for quite some time. She’s worked very hard on it for a number of years.”

Now in its 31st year, AMERINDA is a Native American arts organization working to make the indigenous perspective accessible to a wider audience through the creation of new works. Throughout the next few years Fraher plans to focus on supporting female playwrights like Jamieson who have emerged from the New York contemporary Native American art movement. “It’s a little known art movement here in New York City which is very vital and dynamic, with this really really rich texture to it that stretches back generations,” said Fraher.

Jamieson has felt firsthand the positive impact the movement has had on Native artists. “The support and encouragement are invaluable, as well as the feeling of being part of a vibrant whole—an ensemble, a network, a support group, an audience, a movement,” she said.

But despite the progress made both by the movement and the support of organizations like AMERINDA, Native artists still often must fight for authentic Native American representation in the arts. When she first began booking acting jobs, including two on Broadway [The Price, 1992; Inherit the Wind, 1996], Jamieson was cast according to her Caucasian appearance. But after she listed Native American on her résumé, she received very few non-Native parts.

“I’ve been asked to get a tan, wear a wig, and ‘sound Indian,’ and these suggestions often come from well-meaning people who are looking to promote Native work,” Jamieson marveled. “Until it’s generally accepted that Native people vary in appearance and voice, the situation won’t change.”

Fraher has seen the slow progress made in the battle for representation, first for Native actors to be able to play Native roles and now for Native playwrights to be able to tell their stories. “Perhaps the next big thing we want to conquer is developing leadership—we need to develop Native directors in theatre,” she said.

These advancements are especially important in dispelling the notion that Native American culture exists only as a part of history.

“We’re a living culture—we’re not just figures of the past, so our stories are not just about our historical past,” says Fraher, “It’s really important for people to recognize us as a living culture that’s a part of the whole in order for us to take our place in the American theatre and the canon of American theatre.”

And take their part in the story of one of 21st-century America’s defining traumas.

[Christie Honoré is a writer, editor, and theatermaker with experience in dramaturgy and teaching.  She’s a recent graduate of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.] 

*  *  *  *
by Anne Hamilton

[Until now, most of the AT series on native theater has been serious business—most of the plays are dramas (Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails, a Native American adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, is one exception) and the issues have all been profound and addressed with solemnity.  Well, the guys of the sketch troupe the 1491s take a different tack.  The subjects may still be significant to Native Americans and non-natives as well, but the approach is comedic . . . even silly at times.  And it’s apparently been working since the four-man group, who came together by serendipity, have grown in popularity and demand—and they still have a point to make.  Anne Hamilton’s “A Troupe that Turns Tropes into Takeoffs” is a brief profile of this out-of-the-ordinary comedy quartet.]

The 1491s have gone from YouTube videos to live sketch comedy to a major play commission, and they’re laughing all the way.

The travel route from Minneapolis to Tulsa runs right down the center of the country. If the Midwest is the heart of the country, this route looks like a jagged scar from open heart surgery.

This is the path that members of the nearly decade-old sketch comedy troupe the 1491s travel to meet up with each other and work on their shows and sketches. And if they have their way, their comedy will help to heal an ancient divide as sharp and deep as a scar.

Their work has had national play: In Al Jazeera’s 2012 piece “A dynamic year of indigenous communication,” reporter Manuela Picq led with a nod to the 1491s’ video “Geronimo E-KIA,” which riffed tellingly on the controversial use of the Apache warrior’s name for the Osama bin Laden raid. And members of the group of five appeared in 2014 on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” in a segment called “The Redskins’ Name – Catching Racism” about the controversial name of Washington, D.C.’s football team.

I recently interviewed three of [the] troupe’s five members, then followed up with a more in-depth talk with Bobby Wilson, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota artist and educator. I also spoke with Migizi Pensoneau, an Ojibwe and Ponca writer and producer, and Ryan RedCorn, a[n Osage] portrait photographer and graphic designer from Oklahoma. The group is rounded out by Dallas Goldtooth, a Dakota and Navajo comedian and environmental organizer, and Sterlin Harjo, a Creek and Seminole filmmaker from Oklahoma.

Goldtooth and Pensoneau are stepbrothers who grew up together in northern Minnesota. Deadpanned Pensoneau: “My name is Migizi—it’s spelled like it sounds, only the e is silent.”

I’ll admit the discussion was slightly disconcerting; I felt a bit like I was interviewing frat brothers the day before Spring Break. Topics were introduced rapid-fire and ideas batted around with good humor. Laughter was abundant.

I learned that all their work is co-created. “We aren’t reinventing any wheels—it’s sketch comedy, but we are a different voice,” says Pensoneau. “We like to make what we like to make. We have our own guidelines. Five of us work as a collective. We are a unified voice.”

Wilson agrees: “There’s so much expectation put on indigenous people in the arts, especially in the media. It comes from a longstanding tradition of non-Native people, most often white men, writing stories for Hollywood and the stage. We’re fighting those tropes. If they show up in our work, it’s just to lampoon them.”

The five members met for the first time in 2009 at a festival called the Santa Fe Indian Market, which has been a national gathering place for almost 100 years. “It’s just where all the top Native artists and artisans go to sell their wares and party it up,” says Wilson. “Okies tend to travel in packs. We didn’t have a place to stay, so Ryan RedCorn invited us to stay in a hotel room.” They told stories and laughed for hours, and the group was born. They took their name in oblique reference to Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a touchstone of Native Americans’ culturally rich and advanced civilizations.

Since then the group has made and posted 150 videos to YouTube on topics from film depictions of Native Americans to sovereignty, from cultural appropriation to Halloween to Columbus Day. Their work traffics in silliness as much as satire, breaking up stereotypes and turning tropes around.

They say [they] made their initial video just for fun: To satirize the depiction of the werewolf pack in the Twilight films, they shot “New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions!!!!”, presided over by Harjo, they borrowed a camera for the day. The video took off and won them many fans who asked for more, leading in turn to requests for live performances.

“The videos were a blast,” says Wilson. Then, he said, they got queries from tribes who “asked us if we had ever done live comedy shows. They would ask us to come. They were pretty small venues. The demand for it became so frequent that we do three or four shows a month. As far as we know, we’re the only indigenous sketch comedy troupe in the U.S. If there is even one Native kid in a school district, they often ask for us.”

November has them touring most of the month, as it’s Native American history month. “It’s the only time you’re allowed to be Indian in public,” Wilson quips.

It was while the 1491s were performing at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa that they got a big break of sorts: The Twin Cities’ New Native Theatre took note and brought them to the attention of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Alison Carey, director of OSF’s American Revolutions program, offered them a commission. The troupe has finished their play’s second draft, about which they say there have been no restrictions.

Wilson explains their approach to playwriting: “We asked ourselves, what does a comedy look like in this space? We played around with the idea of doing a musical until we realized that none of us are musical, but there are some components that will end up in this production. We thought, let’s insert music for the comedic timing, and the sake of the storyline.”

As a subject they settled on pivotal moments in American history connected to the Wounded Knee Massacre. The action starts with the American Indian Movement’s occupation of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1970s, and flashes back to events at the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1890. The title: Between Two Knees. [No date had been announced for a production of the 1491s’ play. ~Rick]

While the consensus is that they want to act in the play’s first production, they hope it has a life of its own. “Our dream is that it will go out and there will be people producing it, and it will have a life outside of us,” says Pensoneau.“I would be thrilled if some tribal high school out in the middle of nowhere would put it on.”

There may be an even broader appetite for their work. The troupe recently gave a very well-received show at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. ([Friday, 2 March,] during a nor’easter, no less). “It’s super inspiring to know that Native jokes are landing with a non-Native crowd that is younger,” Wilson said. “A lot of the stuff that we do is regional, but being at Vassar, we were way far away from where we were raised. It gives me a lot of hope that there is definitely a shift and a change.”

By sharing humor with Native and non-Native audiences, the 1491s may just patch together a new American consciousness.

[Anne Hamilton is a New York City-based freelance dramaturg who’s worked with Andrei Serban, Michael Mayer, Lynn Nottage, Niegel Smith, and Classic Stage Company, among others.  Her specialties include new-play development, production dramaturgy, new musicals, career advising, advocacy, and oral histories.  She has an MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts and was a Bogliasco Foundation Fellow.

[When I got the April issue of American Theatre in the mail—it came last month—and I started leafing through it, I found the series of articles on theater by indigenous Americans.  American Indian theater, from what little I knew of its history and development, is a fascinating phenomenon.  (I knew nothing of native Hawaiian and native Alaskan theater efforts, which are covered in the AT series.)  It’s a little like Inuit art (on which I’ve blogged a few times), except that was originated and subsidized by the Canadian government and Indian theater is organic.  Since Indians didn’t have a theater tradition, they took European theater but turned it to telling their native stories and incorporated their various storytelling techniques and styles.  It took time for that marriage to work integrally—and also for mainstream theater people (producers, agents, literary managers, non-native directors/artistic directors, and others) to accept it as a mature, stageable American theater art.  According to the articles in AT, that’s been happening slowly, still mostly out west, but it sounds like it’s at a tipping point.

[I read the articles as I got them ready to post, and they proved to be really interesting.  I believe they’re perfect for ROT!  I hope ROTters have read them all; I’m sure you’ll learn things about our theater, as I have.  They’re absolutely engrossing.  (That promised list of native theater resources is below.)]

*  *  *  *
by American Theatre Editors

Resources, institutions, and more than 100 artists spanning North America.

This list of Native American theatres and theatremakers was compiled in part by Madeline Sayet, with suggestions from Randy Reinholz and with help by Jerald Raymond Pierce.

Native-run theatre companies:
Amerinda (American Indian Artists) Inc. (NYC)
Dark Winter Productions (Alaska)
The Eagle Project (NYC)
Native Voices at the Autry (L.A.)
New Native Theatre (Twin Cities)
Oklahoma City Theatre Company’s Native American New Play Festival
Raving Native Productions (Twin Cities)
Red Eagle Soaring (Seattle)
Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective (NYC)
Spiderwoman Theater (NYC)
Thunderbird Theatre (Kansas)
Turtle Theatre Collective (Twin Cities)
Two Worlds Theatre (New Mexico)

Other producing organization and university resources:
Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA)
Project HOOP at UCLA (dir. Hanay Geiogamah)
Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program (dir. Mary Kathryn Nagle & Reed Adair Bobroff)

Ishmael Angaluuk Hope (Iñupiaq/Tlingit)
Alani Apio (Native Hawaiian)
Jules Arita Koostachin (Attawapiskat, Cree)
Annette Arkeketa (Otoe-Missouria)
Jaisey Bates (Longhouse Huron, Algonquin)
Nick Bear (Penobscot)
C.W. Bearshield (Sicangu Lakota)
Diane Benson (Tlingit)
Columpa Bobb (Tsleil Waututh/Nlaka’pamux)
Reed Adair Bobroff (Navajo)
Murielle Borst-Tarrant (Kuna/Rappahannock)
Ed Bourgeois (Mohawk)
Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)
Margaret Bruchac (Abenaki)
Candice Byrd (Cherokee/Quapaw/Osage)
Julie Cajune (Salish)
Marisa Carr (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe)
Lee Cataluna (Native Hawaiian)
Monica Charles (Klallam)
Vic Charlo (Salish)
Dillon Chitto (Mississippi Choctaw/Laguna/Isleta Pueblo)
Marie Clements (Métis)
Montana Cypress (Miccosukee)
Maulian Dana (Penobscot)
Joseph Dandurand (Kwantlen)
Nora Marks Dauenhauer (Tlingit)
Daystar, a.k.a. Rosalie Jones (Pembina Chippewa)
Ty Defoe (Oneida/Ojibwe)
Darrell Dennis (Secwepemc)
Carolyn Dunn (Muskogee Creek, Seminole, Cherokee)
Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock-Nez Perce)
Steve Elm (Oneida)
Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota)
Lori Favela (Yankton Sioux)
Stephanie Fielding (Mohegan)
Charli Fool Bear (Yanktonai Dakota)
Eric Gansworth (Onondaga)
Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa/Delaware)
Diane Glancy (Cherokee)
Kim Delfina Gleason (Navajo)
Terry Gomez (Comanche)
Moses Goods (Native Hawaiian)
Jason Grasl (Blackfeet)
Tammy Haili`opua Baker (Native Hawaiian)
Joy Harjo (Muskogee Creek)
Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee)
Drew Hayden Taylor (Ojibway)
Lance Henson (Cheyenne)
Tomson Highway (Cree)
Linda Hogan (Chickasaw)
Philip Hooser (Choctaw)
LeAnne Howe (Choctaw)
Claude Jackson Jr. (Pima/Hopi)
Dawn Jamieson (Cayuga/Iroquois)
Terry Jones (Seneca)
Frank Henry Kaash Katasse (Tlingit)
Aassanaaq Kairaiuak (Yup’ik)
Margo Kane (Cree-Saulteaux)
Ajuawak Kapashesit (Ojibwe/Cree)
Bruce King (Oneida)
Martha Kreipe de Montaño (Prairie Band Potawatomi)
Donna Loring (Penobscot)
Nancy McDoniel (Chickasaw)
Gloria Miguel (Kuna/Rappahannock)
Muriel Miguel (Kuna/Rappahannock)
Duane Minard (Yurok, Piaute)
Kohl Miner (Ho-Chunk)
Sam Mitchell (Yaqui)
Monique Mojica (Kuna/Rappahannock)
N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa)
Vicki Lynn Mooney (Cherokee)
Tara Moses (Seminole)
Jay B. Muskett (Navajo)
Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee)
Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl (Native Hawaiian-Samoan)
Michael Nephew (Cherokee)
Judy Lee Oliva (Chickasaw)
Robert Owens-Greygrass (Lakota)
Richard Perry (Yup’ik)
PJ Prudat (Métis/Cree/Saulteaux)
Kalani Queypo (Blackfeet)
Vickie Ramirez (Tuscarora)
Randy Reinholz (Choctaw)
Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe)
Mark Anthony Rolo (Chippewa)
Lucas Rowley (Inupiaq)
Madeline Sayet (Mohegan)
Laura Annawyn Shamas (Chickasaw)
Kim Snyder (Oglala Lakota)
Vera Starbard (Tlingit/Dena’ina Athabascan)
Arigon Starr (Kickapoo)
DeLanna Studi (Cherokee)
Cathy Tagnak Rexford (Inupiaq)
Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul (Salvadoran Nawat)
Maya Torralba (Kiowa)
Joseph Valdez (Navajo)
David Velarde Jr. (Jicarilla Apache)
Rhiana Yazzie (Navajo)
Dianne Yeahquo Reyner (Kiowa)
William S. Yellow Robe Jr. (Assiniboine

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