March 17, 2011

The Frybread Queen reviewed

I attended a preview of Carolyn Dunn's play The Frybread Queen last week. Here's the scoop on it:

"The Frybread Queen" Succeeds As Surprising, Entertaining DramaThe title of Carolyn Dunn's The Frybread Queen is mildly misleading. It's not really about frybread, the Native American staple, although there are several frybread recipes discussed. What the show is truly about is family, and the things people will do to keep it safe. Dunn's play, a world premiere by Native Voices at the Autry, is a successful blend of family comedy/drama and thriller, with an unexpected and intriguing detour into the supernatural. Director Robert Caisley and an accomplished quartet of actresses make this production both entertaining and dramatically compelling.And:Lind is believable throughout as the tough Jessie, but her dramatic scenes seem to work a bit better than the comedic ones. Marlin impresses as peacemaker Carlisle, solicitous of her sister-in-law and niece, and mesmerizes in a monologue where she describes gambling with the dead for her father's soul. Guerrero fully inhabits the ailing but fierce character of Annalee, and she makes the tragedy of the story manifest in her final expressions of horror and sadness. Frances, decked out in black lipstick and purple-streaked hair, is very funny as Lily, making the most out of a monologue where some Native American stereotypes are debunked.Theater Review:  ‘The Frybread Queen’ at the Autry

By David GerhardtWhile it is a distinctly Native American story, the themes that it explores are ones that we can all relate to. Losing a loved one is difficult for everyone, and it affects each of the characters differently. We see these four women bare their hearts and souls to each other, learning that none of them really understands the next. Each one has a secret that changes the story dramatically, and Dunn makes sure that we don’t see those changes coming. To make matters more interesting, the element of the supernatural leaves its mark on the production in very effective ways.

Including ghosts and spirits on stage can be a tricky business. The director, Robert Caisley, and his cast do a masterful job of making the audience believe in this ghost, and force us to fear it. The physicality of the actors, especially Shyla Marlin and Elizabeth Frances, is spot-on and terrifying. Pair that with the dynamic acting by Jane Lind and Kimberly Norris Guerrero and you have a cast that pushes each other beyond what is comfortable for the audience to watch. The audience must witness them tear each other’s beliefs and values apart, which is both difficult and engaging.
But a few problems...

The Indian ComethAfter that show, the cast was joined onstage by members of the creative crew and took part in a talkback with the audience called “Peace Over Violence” about The Frybread Queen and the underlying issues of violence the drama delves into. However, some of the white theatergoers saw the violent plot as reinforcing the stereotype of Indians as “savages,” just as Alan Duff’s novel and the screen adaptation of Once Were Warriors was criticized by some (Native and non-Native alike) for perpetuating clich├ęs about New Zealand/Aotearoa’s Maoris.

Dunn maintains that Frybread’s purpose is to end the cycle of violence that persists in indigenous communities and families that began with the coming of the Europeans and their genocidal conquest of what we now call America, or, as the Indians might call it: “How the West was lost.” Fair enough. However, Dunn’s verbal description of her play’s denouement, and that the survival of some of its characters escape an apotheosis of violence and go on to live full, healthy lives may be inferred from the action. But audiences aren’t mind readers, and Dunn needs to take her play, which has been extensively workshopped already, back to the creative drawing board in order to add a finale that makes this crystal clear. After all, Dunn won’t be able to explain what she really meant after each and every curtain fall, and again, playwrights should not expect ticket buyers to be clairvoyants. And ethnic nuances may fly right over the heads of unsophisticated viewers unfamiliar with the peoples being depicted.
Theater review:  'The Frybread Queen' at the Autry National Center

By David C. NicholsDunn is a writer of talent and imagination, gifted at exposition and the telling detail, but her plot grows so over-seasoned--spousal abuse, incest and spectral possession are but three complications--that it cannot really breathe, and the explosively abrupt ending sorely needs an epilogue.

That said, each player has her tickling and/or arresting moment. Director Robert Caisley's staging certainly holds attention, as smoothly presented and flavorful as anything the Autry National Center's Native Voices series has yet housed. It suggests what "Frybread" might yet become with remixed ingredients.
The "savage" thing didn't even occur to me. The violence seemed like the kind you might find in any dysfunctional family, not something inherent in Indians.

The ending was a bit abrupt and undermotivated, and a final scene might help. But it didn't ruin the play for me.

But I do agree with the comments in the last review. The Frybread Queen has a lot of good ingredients, but they need some remixing.

Background on the play

Also of interest are these articles on the play's history and Native Voices' development of Native playwrights. They explain how you build a Native arts community: with dedication and hard work.

Native Voices Opens Carolyn Dunn’s The Frybread Queen

Frybread Queen Is Poised for a Breakthrough

The last article is by me, so it has to be good. <g>

Here's a paragraph that didn't fit into my article:The novel [precursor to Frybread Queen] was inspired by a trip to Arizona's Lake Powell for camping and water-skiing. Dunn saw a father there who didn't look Native with two sons who did. She started imagining the circumstances that led to that scene.It's not important to know the novel's origin to talk about the play. I just liked the idea of Indians and water-skiing. As with Indians and jousting, those two terms may never have appeared in the same sentence before.

For more on the subject, see Frybread Queen at the Autry and Frybread Queen Explores Tribal Connections.

Below:  Shyla Marlin, Elizabeth Frances, and Jane Lind.

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