August 30, 2007

Right approach to Native theater

Native tongue

'Family' cements relations between theater and stories about the American Indian experienceThough the Twin Cities is a hospitable hotbed for culturally specific performance companies--think Penumbra Theatre Company, Theater Mu and the like--plays by Indian writers have yet to really take root here or elsewhere in the country.

For FastHorse, a 36-year-old Lakota who grew up in South Dakota near the Rosebud Indian Reservation, a production at a Tony Award-winning regional theater is a stamp of legitimacy for her and for Indian playwrights across the country.

"I'm thrilled to have as many native people as possible come to my play and see themselves onstage. That's an opportunity I never had growing up," she said. "But equally as important, I want a wider audience to have that experience; to learn something about my culture but also to learn about their own."
One problem with Native theater:Coming from hundreds of nations within the United States, Indian writers are perhaps a more diverse lot than other culturally specific writers, FastHorse said. And Indian playwrights, like any other writers trying to articulate the experience of a minority population, may feel stymied by a perceived responsibility of having to speak for an entire people.

"I'm not criticizing, but there's still a lot of 'issue theater' out there--written by people who are coming from an angry place or a victimized place," she said. "There needs to be an outlet to express that past, but I think that, as a group, we need to get to that third generation of work."
Another problem:Progress is being made at the Children's Theatre and other local companies, but unfamiliarity is still a problem. "I've been told, 'You're a great writer, but I don't know what to do with native stuff,' " FastHorse said. "There has to be a changing in the collective minds of the theater owners and artistic directors and the play-development people."

Too, there's a wariness in the native community about tokenism. Rhiana Yazzie is a Navajo playwright born in Albuquerque and educated in Los Angeles. She has been living in the Twin Cities for the past year on a fellowship from the Jerome Foundation and has been actively working the small- and medium-sized theater circuit. She has been encouraged by the results--commissions to write plays for Mixed Blood Theatre and SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development.

"Some (Indian audiences) will see a native play and think, 'Oh, this is our 'Dances With Wolves' for this year," she said. "There needs to be some follow-up. Native theater is not nascent; we're not novices. But we need to start to plant that idea."
The solution:FastHorse says she wants "Average Family" to be the kind of work that can hopscotch the first and second generations of culturally specific theater. She thinks creating strong and accessible plays about the Indian experience will prime the pump to start a flow of more visible Indian actors, directors and other theater artists.

"It has to start with the writing," she said. "There are a lot of wonderful native writers, and if we focus on the quality of the work, that work will be able to speak for itself."

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