April 17, 2011

The Colors Started It

A colorful telling of tales / Youth theater production adapts Native American folk stories for stage

By Richard ReischmanFor young Rachel Willis, storytelling is as important to a theater production as storyline--and both should be colorful.

"No matter how unbelievable these stories are, you know there is something in each one of them that you can actually believe," the Ashland Christian School sixth-grader said Saturday night just before taking the stage.

Willis was referring to the four American Indian folk tales she had learned about during her preparation for Trinity Academy of Fine Arts' youth theater production of "The Colors Started It." Each story details cultural myths about how some of the most beautiful and colorful parts of the world came to be--rainbows, sunrises and sunsets, wildflowers and butterflies--all centered around the importance of color.
And:After the character of "Rain," played by Taft Elementary School fifth-grader Kennedy Yetzer, scolds the colors for arguing, Willis emerges from the figments of her imagination to tell the colors, "No color is better than another. They are all important. The rainbow could not exist without each of you playing your part."

The second story depicted the Cherokee legend of how the sun came into existence. After living in hardship and in darkness, a buzzard and an opossum try but fail to bring back a piece of the sun to their home. It was Grandmother Spider, played by St. Edward fourth-grader Vassiliya Draganova, who becomes successful.

In the third tale, a young Cree girl is taken by a thunderbird to the "Land of Rainbows," a place where all rainbows go when they aren't arching and shining in the sky. But while there, the girl begins missing her family and is advised by a thunderbird to grab pieces of the rainbow and drop them onto the Earth. Those pieces become wildflowers.

The young actors finish the storytelling with a tale from the Papago tribe, giving explanation of how butterflies were created with bright colors to give visual delight to the world.
Comment:  I was going to lambaste the school for using what sounded like made-up legends, but apparently they're real.

There are still some unanswered questions here. Tribes have protocols about the proper ways to tell stories. Did the school get permission to tell these stories? Probably not.

Did the people check with anyone to make sure they told the stories correctly? That they didn't oversimplify or bastardize the stories in the retelling? Again, probably not.

Unless Natives wrote these stories specifically so non-Natives could perform them in schools, I'd say this activity is questionable at best. It would be like atheists skimming the Bible and then presenting their version of Christian theology in a school play. In theory they could get it right, but what are the odds?

For more on the subject, see Native Plays and Other Stage Shows.

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