Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An Introduction to the Online Journal by Festival Journalist Tom Pearson

To summarize the activities of The Native Theater Festival this November at The Public Theater is a daunting prospect. Over the course of the three-day festival, November 12 through 15, there were seven field discussions, three readings, three post-performance discussions, one panel discussion, a writer’s roundtable, and a plethora of interviews with festival participants. I think it safest to borrow a sentiment from Eric Gansworth’s play Re-creation Story and start off by apologizing for every error I’m about to make.

It is a great honor for me to be invited by The Public Theater to conduct the interviews and gather my thoughts for The Native Theater Festival Journal, and I hope in some small way to honor all the voices and good words that were spoken. My goal has been, inasmuch as possible, to serve as a conductor and allow the voices to speak for themselves. Therefore, you’ll find meaty interviews with the playwrights and directors, as well as conversations with The Public Theater's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, Betsy Theobald Richards from the Ford Foundation, and Native Theater Festival Consultant Sheila Tousey. I’ve also included a conversation with actor Cody Lightning and a special conversation with Spiderwoman Theater Artistic Director Muriel Miguel. I endeavored to edit as little as possible of these conversations so that the strong voices can come through in their own rhythm and time.

Likewise, I also offer a couple of audio podcasts which include my interview with Native soul singer Martha Redbone, who opened the festival with a concert at Joe’s Pub, and with the three playwrights presenting work at the festival. My coverage of the plays is included in the journal, and you’ll also find transcripts from all of the field discussions.

Within these panels, post-show discussions, and in my writer’s round table meeting, the usual concerns about identity, cultural sensitivity, responsibility, and the viability of Native work were discussed in great detail, but there were also moments where we reached lift-off beyond these issues and met, practitioner to practitioner, to really engage in conversations that were just about art making.

Click around, read the interviews, reviews and discussions, listen to the podcasts, and enjoy the wealth of information that the artists and practitioners from this year’s festival so warmly shared with me and with one another.

About Tales of an Urban Indian


Directed by HERBIE BARNES (Ojibway)

Friday, February 20 - Sunday, March 15

Acclaimed Canadian writer and performer Darrell Dennis tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a young Indian man, Simon Douglas. From living life on the “Rez” to navigating the mean streets of Vancouver’s east side, Dennis weaves a funny and stirring story of identity, discovery, choice and self-respect. A hit from The Public’s inaugural Native Theater Festival, this one-man show returns to make its US premiere following a Canadian tour and two nominations for the Dora Mavor Award, the highest theatrical honor in Canada. A program of the Public Theater’s Native Theater Initiative.

Public LAB is an annual series of new plays that lets you see more of the work you love from The Public and LAByrinth Theater Company in stripped-down productions for ONLY $10. Public LAB allows us to support more artists and gives you immediate access to new plays.


The Public Lab Speaker Series consists of engaging conversations with the artists and notable panelists every Tuesday night following the show. Discussions following Tales of an Urban Indian were as follows:

February 24: Balancing Two Worlds: Native Artists in the City and on the Reservation
Panelists: Darrell Dennis (actor/playwright), Yvette Nolan (Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts) Randy Reinholz (Artistic Director of Native Voices at the Autry) and Sheila Tousey (actor/director)

Click here for transcript.

March 3: Native Theater in New York City Today
Panelists: Murielle Borst (Editor in Chief of EastCoastNative.com), Steve Elm (Artistic Director of Amerinda Theater), Liz Frankel (Literary Associate at The Public Theater), John Haworth (Director of The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian's Heye Center), Muriel Miguel (Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater), and Danielle Soames (Co-Artistic Director of Mixed Phoenix Theatre Group)

Click here for transcript.

March 10: The Rise of Native Theater in New York City in the 1960s and 70s
Panelists: Muriel Miguel (Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater), Soni Moreno (actor/producer), Suzan Shown Harjo (writer/advocate), and Betsy Theobald Richards (director/Ford Foundation).

Click here for transcript.

The Public Theater was proud to host NBC Universal's Native American Talent Outreach:

Multi-Network Industry Panel Discussion-FREE!
Mon Mar 9, 6:30-8:30pm

Learn how to gain access to the film and television industry as an actor, writer, or director.

PANELISTS: KAREN O'HARA, Director Original Movies (Sci-Fi Channel); KELLY EDWARDS, VP, Talent Development (NBC Universal); JENNIFER MCNAMARA, VP, Casting (NBC Universal); KENDRA CARTER, Director, Talent Diversity Initiatives (NBC Universal); JONATHAN STRAUSS, Casting Director (TV/Film)

NBC Universal Casting Call
Tues Mar 10, 9am-1pm

Talent representatives from NBC Universal will be meeting Native American actors for non-specific roles. This open call is designed to increase diversity in NBC Universal's expanding talent pool for film and television. Don't miss out on this exciting opportunity!

All events take place at The Public Theater.

For more information about NBC's events go to www.diversecitynbc.com.

Actors who were not able to attend the open call may mail their headshot and resume to:

Tracette Hillman, Coordinator

NBC Talent Diversity Initiatives

100 Universal City Plaz

Building 1320-Suite 1D

Universal City, CA 91608

The Public Theater's Native Theater Initiative is honored to partner with the following organizations:





Balancing Two Worlds: Native Life in the City and on the Reservation

Moderator: Sheila Tousey (Actor/Director)
Panel: Darrell Dennis (actor/playwright), Yvette Nolan (Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts) and Randy Reinholz (Artistic Director of Native Voices at the Autry)
February 22, 2009
This conversation was part of the Public Lab Speaker Series following a performance of Tales of an Urban Indian.

SHEILA TOUSEY: I would like to know if you see a certain theme that is particular to playwrights being from the reservation or from the city and maybe what some of those topics are. I’m curious about the percent from that certain… Their work is based on where they’re from, and I would like to know what you guys see. I mean, I know what I see sometimes, but I’d like to know what you see.

YVETTE NOLAN: It’s interesting because a lot of things that Darrell talks about in Tales of an Urban Indian, which is a piece that was developed at Native Earth and premiered at Native Earth, a lot of the things he talks about are exactly the things that drive young Native artists to the city because they can’t actually make a living. They are very isolated, in a way, in their own communities, on the rez or even rural communities, and so they come to the city. And then the first work they start writing, they find that they’re struggling with being an urban Aboriginal. Like having moved to the city and being disconnected from their communities. So, we see a lot of sort of those artists arriving at Native Earth, because they can’t work in their communities. And that’s very often the first writing that they do. And then I find that as more and more of them are coming into the city and going into training organizations, they start finding other things to talk about. But there’s always this sense of so much what Aboriginal work is about, we find, is it’s about connection to the land, the land that we’re on or the land that we come from. And so, yeah, it’s a theme that’s going to keep coming up in work over and over again, whether or not we’re urban Aboriginals or we’re writing from our communities. A lot of what Darrell talks about in the play is so true, like having to be shipped off the rez to finish your schooling, to go to high school; that it’s kind of antithetical to the creative process, being a reserve Indian.

RANDY REINHOLZ: You know it’s interesting. It’s hard to shift gears and have a conversation that’s not about the play. Cause I’m wanting to be with the play. And I’m thinking of parallels, and I think I see a lot of artists in that life of “wanting to go to the city.” You know, like country mouse and city mouse almost. And then as soon as they get to the city, there’s that “fish-out-of-water” thing happening. And so they often are going back to community to try to connect. You know we might hear film artists or film actors say “I’ll go back to the theater and charge my batteries” and I feel like a lot of Native artists go back to their communities to charge their batteries or get in touch with the same fear that drove them out in the first place. And then as far as the theme: in the plays you read, there a lot of issues about who’s an Indian. That’s a big, big question right now. And who gets to say who’s an Indian. Is it a federal thing? Is it a tribal thing? Is it a community thing? Is it something you just know? So, that’s a big set of issues that seems to come out of the community. I hear that a lot out of the community. Whereas, probably the urban writers, they’re all over the map. I mean, they’re writing about a bunch of different things. And, so, I don’t see the themes as connected with them as much as like elements. So the spirit world is always present in most Native plays. There’s always some spirit that’s part of the narrative. And so those are some things that I’m seeing a lot right now.

SHEILA TOUSEY: Do you see -- There seem to be a lot of identity issues. Do you find that there are more identity issues from artists from the city or from the reservation?

RANDY REINHOLZ: I think, you know, good artists are actually reflecting society often. And I think there are so many identity issues now, because of gaming and resources, being part of a thing worth fighting for it. So I think that the artists are reflecting that. And then that’s a great conflict to put in a show.

SHEILA TOUSEY: I’m actually going to ask Darrell a couple things. One: maybe you could share with us how your piece came to be. And two: You live in the city now, you’ve moved, right? In your perspective, has being there changed your work? Or -- But being, living in the city for a while, has that changed your perspective as you work on.

DARRELL DENNIS: Yes. [laughter] The play came about because of this woman right here [Yvette Nolan]. The very first production was because of that woman. For that the writing of it was -- It’s gone through a bunch of changes, in my life, some issues I was going through, [laughs] as you can see. And the way I know how to deal with changes in my life is by writing it down. So, I’ve always used writing as a way to purge, to get it out. So, I actually started writing this as a novel, and it quickly became clear that this is another one of those whiney little novels that nobody’s ever going to want to read. But since I’m more use to theater and to film/television, I decided to start writing it as a script. Because the characters I was writing were so huge, so big and I thought it would lend itself well to a play. I think, when I first wrote it, it was… how long? [to Yvette] Do you remember how long?

YVETTE NOLAN: Two-and-a-half hours.

DARRELL DENNIS: Two-and-a-half hours. It’s ridiculous. So there was a lot of cutting. There was a lot of purging that happened to get to that two-and-a-half hour play to about that much. Yea, so there was a lot of cutting back that I had to do. From that point, we came to Yvette and she worked her magic, gave the production a trial, and since then it’s gone across Canada, back and forth across Canada, early on it went to Minnesota, Wisconsin with another actor playing the role. It’s been translated into French and was performed in Quebec. It’s also been developed slightly as a cut-down, sort of, teen-piece, which was performed once. And I’m just finishing a TV pilot based on this. And there’s a feature film version in the works right now. So, this play’s been my bread and butter for quite a while. What was the second question?

SHEILA TOUSEY: You’ve been in the city now for a long time.


SHEILA TOUSEY: Has that changed your work? I mean, I know you’ve worked a lot as a writer; how does that change your perspective on your work?

DARRELL DENNIS: Well, I mean, I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to work in a few cities. So, I have different perspectives from different cities. I’ve lived in Vancouver. I’ve lived in Toronto. I’ve lived in New York. And each city lends a different perspective. For example, Vancouver is a little smaller-town of a city. What I found was that maybe in the city there was still -- racism is still very prevalent towards Aboriginals. In fact it’s radically affected that portion of my work, my experiences in that city. Toronto is a lot more sort of multi-cultural, I found. And there isn’t as much racism; or at least that’s what I’ve experienced in Toronto. And then New York, where the Native community is very -- it goes unnoticed a lot, in this city, I find. People are very surprised to understand, to know that there is an American Indian House. And you know, that there’re these programs at the Smithsonian and stuff. So that’s also flavored my understanding of my work as well. From being on the reserve and from being in the city, most of the stuff I write now is urban. I don’t really touch on issues about the reserve as much any more because this has very much shaped who I am as an artist and as a writer. So, yeah, it has sort of changed my work in a way.

SHEILA TOUSEY: Does anyone have any questions?

Audience #1: There’s one thing that I have from watching and it bothered me a little bit. There’s a stereotype of Native peoples with substance abuse, whores, and things like that; and that was so much a part of this play. A part of me felt like it emphasized it so much that it almost was reinforcing the stereotype. And that bothered me.

RANDY REINHOLZ: You see a ton of abuse issues in Native plays and I think that’s because it is such a big part of our communities. And for a long time it was hidden, as though it couldn’t be talked about because if it were talked about that would somehow be exposing a weakness. And so there was a lot of Victorian kind of hiding everything away. So I think this generation of artist is actually looking at lot of those issues: how does that happen? What are the side-affects of abuse? And what effects do they have? And I think for a lot of young people its “how do you break that cycle?” If you come from three or four generations, how do you break that? And I think a lot of the art is exploring that. Not to speak for Darrell.

DARRELL DENNIS: No. I mean, yeah, absolutely. That is a huge stereotype in our community because it is such a huge problem. I think though what I really -- what I hope came across in the play was the element of choice, and the choice to choose to go down this path or the choice to live with a better thing. Whereas before so much of the stuff was about -- because especially when you live in Canada, you read so many scripts when everything is about “Oh, the white man did this to us, so I’m going to drink.” Or “I’m going to drink because I can’t control my alcohol.” And very rarely is the theme that Native people actually have a choice, they actually have the intellect, the willpower, to have a choice in the choices they make. So, yeah. It was really emphasized, but I hope that it was emphasized that Simon Douglas is not victim. He’s not a victim in this nor is he willingly doing this to hurt people. But I think that that’s a really important thing too. A lot of the stuff that comes out of the Native community is about victimization, as well, be it mental, physical, sexual abuse, stolen land. All these things. It’s very much about the victimization. What I try to do when I’m writing is look at Aboriginal people and say “Okay, yes, we are in a situation where substance abuse is such a huge part of our community. Let’s examine why and let’s also see what we as Native people are doing to contribute to that stereotype, and what we’re doing to fix and solve that.” As opposed to “white man made me this way” or “Daddy made me this way.” What I really want to focus on is: Yes, it’s an issue. Yes, we have a history. What are we as Native people doing to change it? So, hopefully that came out of it.

SHEILA TOUSEY: There are people on the reservation, I mean -- just to play the devil’s advocate -- you know sometimes I’ll tell friends of mine or when my parents were alive, I would say I was working on something, and often they’d say “God, do you have to do another movie about either you’re an alcoholic or your family’s falling apart?” There’s a sense, with our people, there’s a sense within Indian people themselves, that I think they’re looking for some art form to reflect perhaps how they want to be seen. I just wanted to add that.

RANDY REINHOLZ: No, I think you’re right about both. As you said, about the Indigenous or Aboriginal population in New York City, people are not aware that they are their next door neighbors. Certainly, if you’re not aware of the Native population, you can’t be aware of the Native problems that they may have. So, it’ll publicize the reasons behind drug abuse, without casting cause on victimization. If that is the situation, we’re not aware of it.

DARRELL DENNIS: Yeah, and there’s lots of cities across North America too where a lot of times you would go into an office building or a Starbucks and somebody will be behind the counter and they’ll be Native American. They’ll be that. But because they don’t have the long hair and the high cheekbones and dressed in buckskin, you wouldn’t know it. Or on the other hand, because they’re not, you know, with a substance abuse problem or begging on the street, then a lot of people won’t recognize them as Native either.

RANDY REINHOLZ: The waitress we had.

DARRELL DENNIS: Yeah, a waitress we had. We just walked in there -- so Native American people, and this is sort of what my newer work is focusing on, is the fact that Native people are beggars and lawyers and doctors and very successful or they’re serving coffee at Starbucks or the waitress at the end of the day. But because people have a certain idea of what Native people are, it’s very very -- you could be walking past them every single day when you walk around in New York City, but unless they fit into a certain category, it’s really hard for people to recognize them. Yeah, we just had a waitress the other day who just came from -- Randy and I came from this thing at the Smithsonian [National Museum of the American Indian], where the whole discussion’s about what does an Indian look like. And then we went to this restaurant and our waitress came up and we said “What nationality are you?” “Native American” But we didn’t even know that. We thought we had a nose for smelling our own.

Audience #2: I was wondering if you related to some kind of Native tradition of storytelling from your culture or from the reservation, when you were thinking about how you were going to tell your stories or thinking about form or structure of the play, if you thought consciously about whether you wanted to do it in a particular -- tell the story in a particular way that would connect with your heritage or whether you were more influenced by some other theatrical ways of storytelling?

DARRELL DENNIS: The choice to do this as a one-man show is very much reminiscent of the old storytellers of my people way back when. There’s amazing solo pieces you see and see footage of the West Coast people and their magnificent costumes; huge magnificent thing where they just tell a whole story through movement and dance and the whole history of people. I think this form lends itself the closest to the traditions of my people. But for the most part. I’m awful fond of -- that there was a discussion about that -- about how this is a Native form, that sort of thing, and how do we mold that into uniform.


And a hush fell over them. Eh, my last statement must have hit hard.


Audience #3: How hard is it for you to identify yourself as a Native artist? Do you think that’s important, or do you just happen to identify yourself as such?

DARRELL DENNIS: Do you mean do I consider myself a Native playwright or a Native actor?

Audience #3: Yeah, I mean, is it hard for you to say “I’m Native” or whatever?

DARRELL DENNIS: I think the industry has sort of done that for me. I think all Native artists -- I’m very, very proud of being Native. So I absolutely have no issue with people calling me a Native playwright or a Native actor, because that is what I am. What gets to me is when people go “Wow he’s pretty good for a Native actor or a Native playwright.” That’s what kind of bothers me. But, I mean, we would all hope that no matter what we are, no matter what color you are, or what, I think we’d all love to just be considered the best at what we do, as opposed to the best at what we do within our own community. How important is it? It’s become just such a part of my career now that I don’t even think about it now. But I’m lucky in that, especially in acting, I’ve been able to branch off and play other things other than Native characters. Unfortunately, they’re usually an ethnic character.

RANDY REINHOLZ: I think it’s important for the young people to know “Oh I can do that.” Like they can see themselves and pictures themselves, particularly if they go see a play with one of their Native people onstage, and say “hey, that’s a story I can relate to, that I see myself in.” And I think -- I don’t know if that plays a role in Native theater.

YVETTE NOLAN: Yeah, I also think that there’s no way as Native people for us to not be Native. I think that when we come into the room to do work, whether it's writing or acting or whatever, Native artists bring all of our history with us; we bring our ancestors, we bring all of our stories with us into the room. And I think, certainly in our community, there’s an awareness that we are doing this for those who come after us. So, that may be true of every other community; I can only speak for what’s happening in my community and that is we bring all of this to the room. So it’s a very different experience in an Indian rehearsal hall because everyone brings all that, all our history from our people as long as we’ve known them, and that informs the work. So, it’s hard to -- and it gets us into trouble sometimes, in studios, where we may be the only Indian in the room and our experience is quite different from everybody else who just wants to be Hedda Gabler or whatever. We can’t put down being Indian. For the most part I can’t put down being Indian.

RANDY REINHOLZ: But don’t you think that touching on universal themes -- don’t you think that in the production you touch on universal themes? -- The theme of oppression of minorities, of race and that transcends being of any one particular group? Or, in another way, Philip Roth considers himself a Jewish writer, Norman Mailer considered himself a writer that happened to be Jewish. How does that fit in? Are you an Indian playwright, or a playwright that happens to be Indian?

YVETTE NOLAN: The brilliant Oskar Eustis [Artistic Director of The Public Theater] once told me once in a cab, and I think it says this again in the program, universal is specific, like we get universality from very, very specific circumstances. And I think the real specificity of this story and lots of stories that Native people are telling, the way it has resonance in the mainstream, in the larger and dominant culture, is because of how specific it is to our experience. That’s how we achieve that kind of resonance. I don’t think we can aim for that. I think we have to tell our stories as truly as we can to who we are and then hope that it lasts for -- certainly for our community in Toronto, there’s a lot of flow through between all of the communities that are not mainstream. So, the Asian-Canadian community, the African-Canadian community, and the queer community, and we’re very much a community of our own. We’re like a margin which is bigger than the mainstream. And we’re speaking to each other, and then the mainstream comes in and if it’s resonant for them, then great. But, I think that the only way to be universal is to be specific.

RANDY REINHOLZ: I would also say that having Native stories is part of a bigger conversation of what it means to be a person of this country. I think there are bigger conversations for us to have than we’ve been having, this social discourse for the last thirty/forty years. I think we’ve been having very small conversations so that people in power remain in power. And I think this is much bigger conversation that I’m interested in. And I like knowing more about what’s actually happening, what people’s real experiences are. So I think that the universal’s in there; but I think there’s also -- theater’s a great place for social discourse. And here we are and we’re part of that conversation. And that’s exciting and we’re happy to be invited. But, Darrell’s the representative.

Audience #3: I have a question. I was wondering where the God dream came from? That was so nice, that it was like that moment of transformation, but also it’s very funny.

DARRELL DENNIS: That’s the, the thing about God is the question I get the most. I get asked the most about the God sequence, “Where did that come from?” I’ve always sort of, I mean, I’ve been examining religion for years now, and you know, studying different types of religion. I find the subject fascinating. My own beliefs are my own traditional Native beliefs, that’s what I follow. But I just, I love the concept of how much human beings have warped really wonderful sort of scriptures, of all types, to warp it to their own human end. And so, it’s just something -- I think I was -- I was watching some of Jackie Mason’s stuff one day and just the stuff he said was laughable. I think that’s what God would be like, actually. Not this big ominous god that you go to church for and that sort of thing, that’s going to zap you down if you think a dirty thought. But yeah, I was just watching and I was giggling and I thought “That’s what I want God to be like.” It was just so, just such a funny thing. So, in my own belief, that’s what he was like.

Audience #4: Can you talk a little bit about how audiences in different parts of Canada or the US received the play? Could you tell the difference?

SHEILA TOUSEY: You did it on the reservation, right?

DARRELL DENNIS: Yeah, small communities.

YVETTE NOLAN: After Darrell toured, we took it across the country. We did an Ontario tour, just our province with another actor because Darrell said he was never going to do it again. [laughter] I’m just saying. And we went into really small communities, Native communities and reserves, and it plays completely different to an Indian audience. It’s hilarious; and everybody -- you can’t hear because everyone’s laughing so hard. And it’s a real, sort of -- when we play to young kids on the reserves, we play to young teenagers, and nobody doesn’t bring their kid, even though there’s lots of swearing in it and drug abuse and prostitution. We play to really young Aboriginal kids. For them, it so reflects their experience. So many of those kids are going to leave the reserve and come to the city, where the temptations are. Because it’s really easy to come to the city for school and be sucked in to how easy it is to not go to school. How easy it is to hang out at the mall. How easy it is to get drugs. Like the scene where is like everybody’s friendly, asking “do you have something?”, “do you need something?”, “do you want something?” It’s like that in the city and it’s so easy for our kids to be disconnected and become sucked into that. So, in Aboriginal communities, it plays like a raucous comedy and like a morality warning, really. That’s the smaller communities.

DARRELL DENNIS: Yeah, I mean, you’re talking about universality. It’s been really interesting doing the show in as many places as I have, but I’ve found when it’s usually a non-Native audience, people don’t know if their allowed to laugh. The audience is like “Ooh, he’s talking about some serious racial stuff.” And that makes people nervous. So, I found, if it’s mostly non-Native, there’s less laughter. If there’re Native people in the audience, they’re just like “[laughter] That’s my cousin Ricky!” So, yeah, it has to differ. But one thing that I’ve really, really enjoyed about doing this play is there have been everybody from incredibly poor Native people to incredibly rich non-Native people who have all come up to me at one point and said “That’s my story, as well” too. We’ve been talking about the themes that are universal. It’s a play that I think a lot of people -- just because it’s about the Native experience does not mean that people haven’t gotten their heart broken or shunned by that girl they wanted to call up or, you know, lost someone that they loved. These are really universal themes, I think. And that has really reflected in what’s there.

SHEILA TOUSEY: Any other questions?

Audience #5: I think that the rocks really worked for me. I thought that was so --

DARRELL DENNIS: Thank you. That tells a story? That tells a story. That’s good, I love that. So, the Sunday matinee. A lot of people said that’s a very powerful moment for them. There was a woman on Sunday who was watching it and a friend of mine was in the audience and they were sitting behind them. And she just turns over, in a very New York accent, I’m going to try to do it, “What are the rocks for?” He goes “They represent death.” “Well, why doesn’t he just say it?” [laughter] So, we were rehearsing the rock stuff today, and as I was going for the rocks, as I was putting the rocks down, all that was going through my head was, “Why won’t I just say it?” [laughter]

Audience #6: Yeah, I think it’s clearly a personal story. And I wanted to ask you, does it feel very personal when you’re up speaking?

DARRELL DENNIS: You know, when this play was first done, I was still, sort of, I guess, dealing with a lot of those issues. You know, stuff about identity, what am I, where I came from, that sort of thing. Now, I’m finding, it’s interesting, because I am so not that person anymore, that now there’s other stuff that I find personal. I find this play -- I’m doing this play after taking a break, as Yvette said, I had to take a break, because it was killing me. Well, not literally killing me, but it’s just so exhausting for me and I was away from home for a while; but I took a bit of a break from it. And now I find that even though I am not that person any more and I don’t have those issues like I used to, I’m finding new stuff now that is personal for me. Like, this play is actually emotional for me in a different way when I do it now. So, yeah, it’s really interesting. I’m finding new things, and maybe it’s just, I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have a lot more hope now, in my life. So, I find the pain of that is so sad for me, as opposed to anger, which is what I was before, I think. I say in the play, Indian pride or anger, and is there a difference? Well, yeah. There is. There absolutely is. And I think I am now able to distance myself a bit more. So, it’s interesting.

SHEILA TOUSEY: So, thank you for staying and chatting with us. And, I suppose, we didn’t quite talk about what we were supposed to [laughter] but thank you for coming.


Native Theater in New York City Today

Moderator: Liz Frankel (Literary Associate at The Public Theater)
Panel: Murielle Borst (Editor in Chief of EastCoastNative.com), Steve Elm (Artistic Director of Amerinda Theater), John Haworth (Director of The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian's Heye Center), Muriel Miguel (Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater), and Danielle Soames (Co-Artistic Director of Mixed Phoenix Theatre Group)
March 3, 2009
This conversation was part of the Public Lab Speaker Series following a performance of Tales of an Urban Indian.

LIZ FRANKEL: All right, so we will begin. Thank you so much for joining us. As I said before, my name is Liz Frankel, I am the Literary Associate here at The Public and our topic is Native Theater In New York City Today. And I am so honored to be here with all of our wonderful panelists. Since their bios are in the program and we’re going to talk a lot about what they do. I’ll just introduce them. So we have Muriel Miguel, Murielle Borst, John Haworth, Steve Elm and Danielle Soames. The production you just saw tonight of “Tales of an Urban Indian” is part of the Native Theater Initiative, which is a relatively new initiative here at The Public. This is our first full production. Before this we had a festival this past December which featured readings, field discussions and post-show discussions, and we had a similar festival to that the year before…but Native theater has been going on well before us. It’s a really rich community in New York we wanted to celebrate and talk about tonight. The Public Theater is really just building on what’s already been happening and we’re so honored to be joining the Native Theater community, many members of which are represented here. So what I’d love to do is to have each of you introduce yourselves and talk about what projects and shows you are working on at present. Let’s start with you.

MURIEL MIGUEL: It’s very nice to see Native people in the audience. Hello and good evening. I’m Muriel Miguel and I am director of Spiderwoman Theater which is a Native feminist theater group. It is thirty-one years old. It’s the longest ongoing feminist theater group in the world, I think. It started in New York City. We started out as a multi-racial group of women, and then we became an all Native theater group. Now, my aim as director is to pass this on. I’m getting older. And what I see in the future is the next generation of Native women and what they will do with this organization. So I’ll still continue the show, I’ll be doing it at LaMaMa; it’s called “Red Mother” and it’s loosely based on Brecht’s “Mother Courage.” It’s about one woman, literally, empowered by war and what we do as women and what we’re like now. (Beat.) Go ahead. Talk.

MURIEL BORST: I’m the director of the piece. My name is Muriel Borst. I’m a writer/director/actress/ producer. Right now, I am working with United Nations Indigenous Forum where I’m working on the death of Indigenous people. I’m trying to get the arts involved with that. I’m a special assistant to the representative…I believe that storytelling is part of what we do as Native people. I believe that storytelling is what teaches us and what heals us. I believe the thread has been cut internationally. We have to fight for that. We have to fight for our rights. Part of the Indigenous forum and part of the declaration means that we have the sovereign right to fight as Native and Indigenous people for our art socially and in literature. It’s human rights issue, really. And that’s what I’m working on. I’m also the editor-in-chief of East Coast Native. It’s an electronic magazine that focuses on Native people who live on the East Coast, who are connected to the East Coast, who have something to say. Right now, we’re not taking any form but we are…

Anyway, the next thing I’m working on, and that’s what I do, I’m also working with my husband. He hires me as his artistic director. We’ve collaborated on many different things. I grew up here in New York City. My husband grew up in New York City. My daughters grew up in New York City. I know my tribe. I know my culture, I know my language. And I think those are very important. I think the other most important thing is that we as Native people who live here in these cities, that our own identification is what we’re always fighting for. We’re always fighting for those issues. We’re always fighting to be heard. We have a special voice. We have a voice that needs to be heard. Everyone has a different voice. I thought this was a wonderful piece and that this piece really talked about different themes that go on in different Native cultures. We all have different voices and we all have different places to get to that one goal. I’m also the director of my mother’s piece, “Red Mother,” and that’s what we’re doing right now. The next thing we’re doing is a benefit for Flying Eagle Woman Fund produced by Spiderwoman Theater at the Public Theater. That’s it.

JOHN HAWORTH: My name is John Haworth and I’m the director of The George Gustave Heye Center which is part of National Museum of the American Indian. I’m honored to be here at the Public Theater. I’ll tell you a little bit about the convergence of themes and your questionsee on the desk, our catalogue for an exhibit called “New Tribe, New York.” You’ll see that like this piece, it really tells the truth and deals with some very complicated issues. One of the things in “New Tribe, New York,” which celebrated and honored Spiderwoman, was Mohawk artist Alan Michelson who has been selected for a major public art piece on the Canadian-U.S. border at the border station this year. You’ll find that is incredibly significant both as an achievement and cultural expression. I agree with something said earlier which is inspiring in that statement… It is quite important while we’re talking about urban Indianness that we are living in a city with an American Indian population. I believe that population by the U.S. census account does not necessarily include what I’ll call transnational people from Central or South America. I think that the museums and institutions are a great storage of reflection. The real heart of what we do is…expression. We’ve dedicated an art gallery to Native art. In terms of theater work in particular, we have a lot of performing arts programs andan incredible music series mostly in the summer but also in other seasons. We have a Native American film and video festival which is coming out later this month on March 26th. I think that this year, I was thinking about this earlier, this year is quite significant for lots of reasons. This is the 400th anniversary of the Henry Hudson Fulton Champlain Quadricentennial and I think this is a moment that all of us can think about, that point of contact and what it means from a Native perspective… I think this is a remarkable year because in part of what the Public Theater is doing is putting a production expression in terms of creative artists who are themselves…I think it’s a really important point. I think that this is the year that we saw Frozen River and with a very complicated story…the mainstream recognition is no small matter. The fact that Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award, the fact that even though we saw in the first moments of the piece…we saw stereotypical images and there were references that are…commercial images and all that, I’m reminded that this is also a season for […] mainstream opera at the Metropolitan Opera. There was a beautifully drawn Native character, it’s not played it’s not sung by a Native singer. However, it’s not lost that an opera basically about a weapon of mass destruction on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with a truthful Native character is something very important. And a Native character on Broadway in the play “August: Osage County,” is the most powerful role in the play.

STEVE ELM: My name is Steve Elm and I’m the Artistic Director of Amerinda Theater. Before I continue, again, I’d like to say I’m very honored to be on this panel, specifically because Muriel Miguel who is not only an elder in the Indian sense but also an elder in the creative sense. So I’m very honored to be here. And also, just a little anecdote about Muriel…I trained overseas in the UK I don’t know if there are any Shakespearean actors here who… Muriel Miguel was known over in the U.K. in the eighties with Spiderwoman Theater. And I’d never even knew there was Indian theater at that time, that there were real Indian playwrights…I went to interview another theater person, a man named…of a company, Blue Lips. He went, “What are you?” and I said, “Well I’m Indian. American Indian.” “You know Muriel Miguel?” and that was how I first heard of Muriel Miguel. I’m also the editor of Talking Stick Native Arts Quarterly. Talking Stick is published by Amerinda which is part of an umbrella company. I’ve been in New York since 1991. I came here to work as an actor and educator. And I found out the…piece very challenging …specifically much of the material about being an actor and the culture of references that go along with it. Consequently I pulled out of legit theater because I wasn’t prepared emotionally to deal with those things. I was very lucky to find a home in Native theater in different ways. Talking Stick, that’s part of Amerinda, our mission is to promote Native artists, explore Native artists, get it out in the open from a Native perspective. We had various meetings throughout the community in the last couple years and we always knew there were groups like Spiderwoman and Yaddo but there wasn’t really any thing happening. It was always us trying to get something going. …We’ve only been doing work for about a year and a half, very early at this stage. Our mission is to present emerging and new Native playwrights along with other Native artists. A long term goal, I’m going to do this all on the stage, is get Native theater out of archives, specifically and into legit theaters and into commercial theaters. That’s my long term goal. It might take a generation but that’s what we’re working towards.

DANIELLE SOAMES: Hello. My name is Danielle Soames. I’m thrilled to be here as part of this panel. I have to say that all of these people on the panel I’ve worked with and I respect very much. My theater company that I co-founded and am artistic co-director of is Mixed Phoenix Theater Group. My business partner, who is in the audience, is Ryan Victor Pierce. We have worked together for about eight years as actors, directors and now producers and company owners. We’re in the process of getting incorporated. We started our procedure about a little over a year ago now. We worked together on a project called “Carlisle, A Different Three Sisters” written by Myrton Running Wolf. It was an adaptation of “Three Sisters.” Took place at Carlisle Indian school. Upon that journey, we got in a discussion about “Hey, I’d like to start a theater company.” “Me too.” “What would you like the mission to be?” Well, our mission is that we have American Indian stories but our focus is to tell the American story through multi-ethnic, multicultural backgrounds breaking mainstream stereotypes. Part of that reason is because we’ve both fallen out of the loop of what is considered to be typecast as a Native actor. We both struggle with that. We thought if we can get the word out into the public and kind of help change what people see as a Native actor, maybe somehow it will start the steps to understanding that maybe Native people have evolved into these urban people who do all sorts of different activities and jobs and don’t just have the regular braids and turquoise. Even though, as I was saying that, I’m wearing a turquoise scarf but that was not planned. What’s coming up: May 13th and 14th, we’re working on a workshop production of an original piece that we’re developing based on a multi-ethnic cast. We’re developing our own stories through movement, identity and music. It’s going to be quite exciting. I feel that all of these people here have helped develop who I am as an artist living here in New York City for about twelve years. It’s very inspiring.…I’m hopeful. We’re going to actually perform here in the Rehearsal Hall. It’s invite only. You’re going to have to contact us specifically. Then it’s at the Community House on May 15th. That’s open to the public. If you want more information, I can tell you after.

LIZ FRANKEL: So, before we go to questions from the audience, I just have one question that I’d love to throw out there to all of our panelists. Given that you are all living in New York and primarily working in New York, what do you feel that your relationship is to Native artists who aren’t in New York, who are living in other parts of the country or living on reservations, as well to youth, both here in New York as well as elsewhere.

MURIEL MIGUEL: Our relationships?

LIZ FRANKEL: Yeah, or connections. Is there a connection? I know you do a lot of youth outreach as well as tutoring.

MURIEL MIGUEL: Well, you know, Indian Country is first. And we find that out over and over again in these numerous performances. And yes, we’re in New York City. And yes, we’ll be working, yes, all of us, we’ll be working very hard in New York City. I think why I ended up in England and Germany and all of those places, was because there was no home gig at that time. And we went to Europe with one of our shows. And when we came back, one of the things that happened was there was a circle of elders and they’re the ones really that said “Well you know you should be doing a story about this and you should be doing a story…” And how we’re not here. And that’s why we really made that effort to be here and to work in New York City at the Community House, at La Mama, at the Theater for the New City, we worked all those places and I think now what I’m looking at is that we need the Indian community, the Native community, to support us, to support all this work. You know, that people should start calling us up and saying “you’re paying a due.” I think that’s really necessary now. And if it’s from across the country, great! You know, if it’s from Canada, great! If it’s from Central America, great! I want to see that. Because, to us, really, there are no, you know, all of these borders. Forget about that. They’re just used as excuses to keep us apart. And there’s also, the excuses, you know, that “Oh, that they’re from the Northwest; they’re from the Southwest; they’re from, you know, upstate.” We really have to start thinking about really supporting each other. And that’s my relationship. My relationship is that, you know, we’re all one. We’re all one, and if we want to tell our stories and keep our culture going, we have to start thinking. Not that we have to give up our nations, but that we have that sovereignty across the boarders.

MURIELLE BORST: I guess, my relationship, with the youth is with a teenage girl. And I, now I mix, here, I am having the same type of, now, it’s very interesting. …But, anyway, you know, when you’re the lone Native kid in a theater program… And that was very interesting, when he brought it into his piece, because I understood it. I never particularly went through that because I came from I live in New York. But now that my daughter is going to a high school where she’s the only Indian kid, and the only thing you can see that is a reflection of you is Raisin in the Sun for that Native kid. Not that it’s not a good play, not that you can’t relate to that. But, what about Native plays that are being printed, that are being published? And we need to start making the effort as teachers to make that effort - college, high school, junior high- if you have that one Native kid, make that effort to buy those plays. You know, other than – some children– aren’t interested in Shakespeare. And you can lose a child through the cracks during that time. And I think that you have my own daughter read Shakespeare. I don’t say it, but I realize that, you know, she’s not getting “Romeo and Juliet,” because she thinks it’s a stupid story, and they are two stupid teenagers, and she would never do that. A teacher needs to turn around and say, “Well, I’m not going to use this thing. I need to find another way to educate.” And that’s where, I believe, I do believe this, that there are tons of different ways to teach. There are tons of different ways to tell a story. And if you can get to that child, somehow, and then there has to be a connection between the youth and the elders. Like right now, I’m in between. I remember when I was a youth. I’m not, you know – so, now I’m a bridge, because I have elders in my family. I have real elders, besides her I have real elders in my family. You know, and how do we keep them occupied? How do we keep them in touch with us? In, especially, in New York City. I ask- you know- asking the elders in my family, “well, what do you need? Do you need - you know, your world is separated here. How do we help each other? How do we get together with socialism? And bringing the powwow back to what it was originally supposed to be.” How does the youth understand the elders? I mean, really understand. Not “old people.” I mean, they have a point. And I do believe that. I mean, there’s a difference between old people and there’s a difference between elders. And we know a lot of old people, but we need to bring back our elders. And I think that’s really, one of the works that, with my community, that I really want to talk about. And with our youth. Because without our elders, we don’t have community. Without our youth we don’t have a community. Both will disappoint each other. And that’s something, in New York City, that we have room to do. And, again, she’s right. We have to start helping each other, we have to start realizing, I believe, that what happens a lot of times is that we think that everything has to be a hundred-thousand dollar budget. But if you realize that storytelling is in a room and you can get five-hundred people, if you look at the academy awards, the way they brought that all down, that’s a Native concept, you know? How they honored each one of those actors, that’s an Indigenous concept. That’s nothing new. So, now, we’re being called upon to do it. Obama has an idea. We have to have a different way of thinking and a different way of thinking has come through words and how do we…if you’re used to doing something for five people in your backyard for five bucks, believe me, you can do a hell of a lot with fifty-thousand dollars. So, I think we really need to start thinking about that. And really that’s kind of my whole thinking.

MURIEL MIGUEL: I remember, there were two very traditional spoken peopleand they talked toand it was incredible to have these two people who believe deeply about the significance and cultural importance of repatriation. We also said some things that were so meaningful to me, and so connect to what I feel that the work’s meaning is. What it’s about is important. And that was basically, the lesson that they have gone back decades upon decades. And the belief was that their language was not something that someone learned, that they have something of a personal belief. And so, that experience made connection. I think that this evening is very special to consider this idea in mind… We can be a part of this verbal communityBut I also believe that this connection with the whole range. I love what you said in your piece about the adjective of describing your reservation in you, you’re assimilated. And I think that this is complicated and very enormous in its discourse, this community, this ritual, history making. A friend of mine often gives me a hard time saying, “You know, this is – you’re working in an institution that – you know – this is America’s holocaust and you need to tell your visitors more directly about that.” I understand that we’re in need. And I understand that we can put out there what’s important, tell stories of sovereignty, the story of land, the story of western expansion, all of the complexity of the history of this country. But I also think it’s something to talk about the aspirations and achievements and not the awfuls done, but what we did. And I think that that’s the danger of the west. And I do think that the contact with communities, and I think that in a very important way, in New York, that we have a space that is for Native socials about three or four times a year, and I feel that it’s one of the most important …things that New York is doing and I’m very proud of that.

DANIELLE SOAMES: I was just going to say that one of the ways that I stay connected to my community up in Mohawk and my roots are from Kahnawake, which is right outside Quebec – actually it’s inside of Quebec, just outside of Montreal. But I didn’t grow up on the rez; my mom grew up on the rez. So, working at the museum, I work at the [National] museum [of the American Indian] Haudenosaunee discovery room, which is a room based on traditions for the Iroquois people, so all the Six Nations. I met a wonderful documentary film maker, Tracey Deer, and through that connection I was able to discuss what’s happening in New York City and what’s happening on the rez and turns out that her family bought the newspaper on the rez, which is called Eastern Door. So, I have a regular column, where I write “Mohawk Girl in New York City.” Kind of like a “Sex and the City” but from my point of view about being mixed. So, not so, you know, risqué, just about the arts and what’s happening here from my perspective. And that’s how I reach the community. And I also have family who live right on the rez, and they tell me about issues that are happening. And once I hear about those issues, I bring them into rehearsal and we talk about blood quantum and we talk about the land rights. We talk about all these issues that are happening currently and in the past and continuing. Trying to explore new ways of developing- I guess communicating – to the public. So, that it’s not so isolated. And I realize, you know, maybe some of the dialogue we found funny as Natives and non-Natives didn’t understand - but one thing that I have to say which was brilliant was the way, Darrell, that you acted like the Native girl. You went “Mmmm, yeah, you- I know- ” The way you did it was awesome and it really brought back some memories. So, anyway, so trying to bridge that gap between the rez and the urban community in a creative movement performance stuff.

STEVE ELM: Years ago – I’m going to make this very quick – years ago, I was in a play here and my character was called “The Indian.” And afterwards, I didn’t want to do this thing, so I thought, I got some money and I funded American Indian Community House Youth Theater Project. And I really thought-- And a nominal objective, when I go to rehearsals, I’d say, “Let’s talk about identity. How do you feel about being Indian? You’re half black, half white – deh-deh-deh” and they were all like this [gestures] to me. “They say we’re Indians. That’s who we are.” And my issue, because I wasn’t in such a big question mark about it, simply through working in theater and being hired as “The Indian” I wanted to see where they were at with this. And I found a lot of what urban kids that had grown up in the community, the Shinnecock kids, the Mohawk kids, whatever kids that are grown up in this community and have been nurtured by, they had no problem. They were hip-hop, they were rap, they were reggae, they were hard-rock, they were Indians. And I found that when you go around the country you find out there are a lot people, the young people, secure in how they are growing up. And I feel it is very important that that is continued, and I worry that it’s not being continued as much as we could hope it to be. Also, quickly, in terms of relationships with other artists throughout the country, I’m poor. I am not really able to travel the country and meet lots of other artists, other Indian artists. And most Indian artists are poor, and their shows don’t normally come here. So it’s very rare when do get to all come to together. And I also want to thank the Public Theater for being very instrumental in having so many Indians in the theater recently, it’s been great.

LIZ FRANKEL: I think we’ve been running a bit long. I think we’ll have time for just one question from the audience. [laughter] Maybe two or three. Anyone have anything they’re dying to ask?

MURIEL MIGUEL: It’s so typical. A bunch of Indians onstage.

MURIELLE BORST: We have to get everything out.

MURIEL MIGUEL: We can continue talking in the lobby for hours and hours.

Audience #1: You were saying, what does it mean to be authentically Native?

MURIEL MIGUEL: What does that mean?

Audience #1: I mean, to be authentic as opposed to inauthentic. What does that mean? And what is your relationship to – what’s the relationship to past tradition 400 years back in relationship to the present and reality of who you are in the -

MURIEL MIGUEL: There’s no difference. I mean, did we use authentic?

MURIEL BORST: Authentic? I mean you’re saying how are we different from five hundred years ago to today?

Audience #1: I’m saying, what is the concept of being authentic?

MURIEL MIGUEL: What do you mean authentic?

HERBIE BARNES (Tales Of An Urban Indian’s director): Sorry, I think what he’s asking is, when you say, I played the role of “Indian” what the difference between playing that role and you’re trying to do. How are you breaking that rule of–

STEVE ELM: I’ll answer that really quickly, I think Darrell answers is in his show as well. Ah, you’re often asked – there’s a certain thing around Indians, especially when we’re put in a public situation or a theatrical situation, it’s whole buffalo speech thing. You’ve got to slow down, you’ve got to be spiritual, you’ve got to be stoic as Darrell said. If there’s any trace of being urban. A lot of non-Indian people, and some Indians, will question your, what we call, “authenticity.” And I think most Indians in the house would understand that. I hope that.

MURIEL MIGUEL: Is that what you meant?

MURIELLE BORST: …I agree. You know. I mean, no one sees it as racism. They don’t see it as racism. And that’s what really gets me, is that, you know, here you have Obama as president, we have men having babies, but talk about an Indian who walks into a casting director’s office and they can still say that you don’t look like an Indian, if a little person who was a midget walked in, you would never say he doesn’t look taller. But they’re still saying that to us. And no one is seeing that as racism. And you know. I guess that’s the whole thing. You know… I guess, you know, and you see that. A lot. That’s my thing.

MURIEL MIGUEL: I guess, authentic things, makes me crazy. That’s why I said, “Did we say authentic?” You know. It’s one of those words. You know. “Are you authentic?” So, ahhh- I forgot what I was going to say. [laughter] Next question.

LIZ FRANKEL: Alright, we’ll do one more question, and then we should give the theater back. Alright, we’ll go with you [to audience member].

Audience #2: Okay, I’m from New Mexico, and we have a lot of Native Americans in our state. And we’re being inundated with the gambling world around us. We have casinos all over the place. And I thought how wonderful it would be for you to connect with those people and tell your story. And tell the story that isn’t being told even to our own people, to understand why they feel the way they do, because of the discrimination and things that we feel. I also wanted you to know that I think we’re here, the eight people sitting here, bringing Indigenous people together from rural America to work together. And so, it’s really wonderful to see that this is happening and people are telling their story and how they feel in identifying themselves. I thought it was portrayed very well by the young man here and sometimes I got teared up over it, because it is so very true. You know with Indigenous people and how we feel and how we’re being discriminated against. I think it’s a wonderful way to tell their story. And I was very mixed up. A lot of other cultures that have told their stories and it’s very moving and it’s a very really real way to see. Because you’re telling it from your heart and how you feel, so, I applaud you for your work and what you’re doing and I encourage you to spread your wings and go to other places because we, as Native Americans as well, need to have someone tell us this story for us to really understand what’s in our hearts. Thank you.

LIZ FRANKEL: And thank you for that. I think we could probably go on talking for hours, but I know you can’t keep a theater open for hours. So I think we should end here. And we invite everyone to go to the lobby, and buy some books on this topic and keep talking as long as you’d like. Thank you, everyone.

The Rise of Native Theater in New York City in the 1960's and 70's

Moderator: Betsy Theobald Richards (Director/Ford Foundation)
Panel: Muriel Miguel (Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater),
Soni Moreno (actor/producer), Suzan Shown Harjo (writer/advocate)

March 10, 2009
This conversation was part of the Public Lab Speaker Series following a performance of Tales of an Urban Indian.

BETSY RICHARDS: Hi all. Why don’t we let everybody come on in. Well, I just want to say aho and welcome. My name is Betsy Theobald Richards. I’m from the Ford Foundation. I’m a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and I’m also a theater director. But, tonight, we have the pleasure of having people who have dedicated themselves for years to the excellence of their work and lives to making things better for the Indian people in this country, and possibly for all indigenous peoples. They were also here in New York at a very particular time of social change and of people’s movements, in the late sixties, early seventies.

So first I want to introduced Muriel Miguel, who is [applause] a Founding Member and Artistic Director of Spiderwoman Theater, the longest running Native American womans’ theater company in North America. She was also an original member of Joe Chaikin’s Open Theater. Suzan Shown Harjo is a poet, a writer, a curator, a policy advocate, who has helped Native people recover more than one million acres of land and has developed laws to protect Native nations, arts, cultures, languages, religious freedom, sovereignty, and sacred places. [Applause] Soni Moreno is a co-founder of the internationally acclaimed Aboriginal women’s vocal group Ulali. She was a Hair cast member. She is now also a board member at the American Indian Community House here in New York City. And what we’re going to do is talk for a little bit [Applause].

Simon Douglas said tonight, in his story…he started off by saying this story is not told enough. And when I talked to Oskar [Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater] about the importance of having this panel about placing some of these fantastic people to talk about fantastic things that were happening at the time, it really was first sparked, I know it was important from the beginning, but when I read Steven McElroy’s piece in the The New York Times—it was just a blurb where he was talking about the 2007 Native Festival, and he said “A dedicated New York theatergoer might be justified in thinking this town has played host to every kind of theater possible….But the Public Theater, which doggedly tends to uncover the new, is offering a festival next week featuring the work of American Indian artists from the United States and Canada.” And I read that and I said, “New? Hmmmm. We were here before you. And we’re “new?” There are some important stories to tell. So, the fact is that Native people have had a presence in performance in New York City for many, many years. And that could be the subject of volumes. But tonight we’re limited in our time and our scope; and these three women who are here have many stories to tell, so what I’m going to try to focus on is just one period, the late sixties and early seventies. A time when, to quote what Robert Allen Warrior and Paul Chaat Schmitt published in their book on the Indian movement “Like A Hurricane,”: “Indian people, for a brief and exhilarating time, staged a campaign of resistance and introspection unmatched in this century…It was for American Indians every bit as significant as the counterculture was for young whites or the civil rights movement was for blacks.”

So tonight, we’re going to do a kind of hitting on…a little Edward R. Murrow, you were there (Laughter), jumping back to two particular years. We’re going to be soft on the edges, we’re not going to be exact but back to 1968 and 1973. It will give a chance for you to know us. We’ll talk a little bit about places […] and to share with you perspectives.

The year is 1968. It’s Martin Luther King. John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. There’s violence and a convention. Nixon’s elected. “Green Tambourine.” The Graduate. And the tribal love-rock musical Hair is running at the Public Theater. As producer Michael Butler picked out on the poster and you can see it on your leaflet, “Guess this is a play about American Indians because that’s what’s on the poster.” It’s a tribal love-rock musical that has Indians. And he calls Joe Papp about producing it on Broadway. The American Indian movement is dominant in Minneapolis. The Native community in New York is preparing—they’re in their planning stages in founding the American Indian Community House. So to each of these panel members, that’s not true, I know it’s battle of ’69, I’m saying they’re preparing.

MURIEL MIGUEL: No. There was a distinct quote.

BETSY: Okay. I had the same conversation with Suzan beforehand. What was happening with you at the time?

MURIEL MIGUEL: What was happening with me at the time? There’s two stories of the conflicts in my mind. One was, Hair had auditions, there was a cattle call for Hair here and I had an uncle who worked across the street at Mann Refrigerator…still see the clock that says Mann Refrigerator. He was staring at all these people who were candidates; the line was around the corner. And I was working here, I was doing The Serpent here, so I came through all this crowd and everyone’s making fun of all these people and I came out and I ran across the street and said, “Uncle Charles!” He was so aghast. He had never…Oh My God. And then he went, “Yeah. Uh huh.” That was one of the things I remembered about working here and Hair. The other thing is that the American Indian Community House at that time, before that, that was before they hired Hines and she started with Community House on Broadway in one little room with Iola Boyle and one other member—I can’t remember her name. And they started and that was before the money came in that they started that. So there’s one story I can’t remember anymore.

BETSY: You were at The Serpent here at the Public Theater. Who directed that?

MURIEL MIGUEL: Joe Chaikin. And it was…I didn’t know who here…as a matter of fact, the first Spiderwoman benefit was done here and all those guys, Gerry Ragni and…Oh that was the other story. So they wanted to make an Indian play and Gerry Ragni, who was maybe God, calls my ex-husband, husband then, and he says, “Can you bring drums in for Galt MacDermot?” Galt was really upset because…my husband came in and sang for him. Gerry wanted an honoring song. He was with us, he came to my powwow when I got married. He really wanted that feeling. He wanted that death scene to have an honoring song in it. And Galt was really upset. Finally, Gerry said, “Well can you do this?” and Gerry leaps across the floor and Gregory [my husband] says, “No. You can’t do any of that on the [gestures] You don’t even [gestures]” and so that was the end of that. The end of that being a Native play… (Laughter)

SUZAN HARJO: I was sitting in a little room at a church that was the American Indian Community House and I was just answering phones, answering letters, lots of letters and got a call. A man who identified himself as a Black Panther was on the line and I said, “What are you calling here for?” He said, “Because I don’t know where else to turn.” Isn’t this extraordinary? So I called Shunatona Hines and others who were among the founders of the American Indian Community House and told them what an extraordinary thing and I said, “So this man is on his way over now and we have to give him some charity because he asked.” They didn’t know what to think about but they agreed and thought also that it was an extraordinary thing. So I thought it was just amazing that, well, it reminded me how our ancestors must have felt when pitiful people came here and we fed them. They didn’t know where else to turn. They looked to us to feed them. And to see them through the harsh winters. So we did that for him and then he went on his way. We gave him some money and you would recognize this man. So, he lived a long time, I’m glad to say.

During that period, I was in a lot of different things. I had moved to Greenwich Village near the bar where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death and because of that… (LAUGHTER) then moved to a loft above the bank at Sheridan Square and was right by the that wonderful […] we used to go to to hang out at the writer’s bar…where they had…well, anyway, I remember that my friend Vine Deloria Jr., who was our most prolific author, who was unknown at the time outside of Indian circles, introduced us all to that particular bar because he fell in love with Jessica Lange who was the waitress. (LAUGHTER.) It was that kind of time. I was doing theater all over the place with Classic Stage Company and WBAI radio. Joe Chaikin was a great mentor and friend and taught me a lot about how to use public places and how to use public forms for the common good. I’d call and ask him about something or for someone’s number and we would finish that and he would say well, hey, so and so wants to come over and do a reading about something, why don’t we do a reading of speeches by great chiefs and we’ll just gather some people. So we did that. Anyone in town… I guess this is another lesson I learned from Joe: everyone in New York who is in the theater is always out of work. So everyone’s anxious to do something…so you can always have the cream of the crop come over to your place and do something. So there were a lot of programs on WBAI where I produced first on a program called “Seeing Red” which everyone thought was a Commie program and then they would listen for another minute. It was a good program. Milton Hoffman, who went to WETA [Washington Educational Television Authority], was the director of the drama and literature department, hired me in his department and then promoted me to replace him when he left so I got to do great great things. Joe Chaikin threw me programs and I would throw him programs. He had a really wonderful mix […]

I don’t know if the young man [Darrell Dennis] we have been watching for an hour and a half can hear us but…I think he’s marvelous. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

SONI MORENO: In 1968, I was at […] I was going to high school…I went to continuing school. I left home when I was seventeen. I went to school during the day and got a job at UC-Berkeley in the drama department. Then, I too had no idea what I wanted to be but at the age of eight, I had decided somewhere that it was going to be […] (Laughter.) And so drama became a love for me. I grew up in a family that picked fruit during the summer. Every summer we worked in the fields and then I’d go live in Stockton, California. So I left all that, was living in Berkeley… During that time there was a lot going on in [Grizzly] Peak Park. Literally it was practically my backyard, handing out acid and people getting together and artists. The people took over that park and that’s when the National Guard came. So all during this time in 1968 there was a lot going on.

I had heard about this play Hair that was being cast in New York when my science teacher, because I went to school half a day, all you had to do was sign in and get credit so I was pretty much the only one in class. So I was being tutored.My science teacher brought in this San Francisco paper saying there’s an open call audition for Hair. And he knew I was into theater and in the drama department. He says, “I know you’ll never get the nerve to audition. You wanna be in this but you’re not going to be in it.” […] I said, “Well watch me.” I used to get high with this teacher. (Laughter.) So, I went and I called up. They said, “You need three songs. Come on this day.” I’d never sung before. Spanish was my first language. I learned how to speak English by annotated songs on the radio. The very first song I sang was “Round and round, the Christmas tree and Christmas…” […] So I would imitate these singers. I came back to school and I said, “well, I have my appointment. I have these three songs.” “Well what songs are you going to sing?” “Um. […] I had to have a rock tune or upbeat, so I chose “The Weight” and another melancholy song so “Diamond Song.” I went in and was singing those songs over and over again, performed for myself, went to that audition. It was like magic. It was everything I expected it to be. Oh my god this is crazy. It was time for me to go, I was so nervous, my voice was shaking and I was singing (imitates herself in a falsetto voice). I finished that song. I was a junior at this time and so my science teacher —god bless his heart—was very very there for me. I got called into the office, two weeks later I was sick and out of school for two weeks, I was called in. Well, within those two weeks I got a call back, another call back, and I was waiting. They said, “In seven days you’ll know.” In those seven days, I was called in the office. “We have some news for you. You didn’t graduate from this class as you liked because you haven’t enough credits.” Two days later I got the call, I was cast in Hair.

That started the theater bug. While I was doing Hair in San Francisco, I was the only Native that was cast and during that time they took over Alcatraz. The takeover was really incredible because again there was a lot of stuff going on in Berkeley and in San Francisco. The show had opened really well and I’d gone to the producers and asked, “Would it be okay if I came out—because they have a tub that they would bathe Claude in, I don’t know if anyone saw Hair—if I could take the tub out and ask for donations at the close of the show.” “Oh that’s so cute, yeah, go ahead.” At the end of the show I would ask for donations. What happened was I was able to get two boats every Sunday […] I was able to take that first trip on a boat to Alcatraz and spend a couple hours there…I really felt that…what a cool thing. I’m getting paid for just being me and being able to stand up for what’s right and to be a Native…It’s really interesting I didn’t really know that many Native people in San Francisco at the time…and now a lot of my friends are there asking me […] That’s where I was 1968, 1969.

BETSY: Okay Edward R. Murrow, moving on to 1973. (Laughter.) Doesn’t have to be exactly ‘73. Just around the same time. U.S. is completing its withdrawal from Vietnam. […] World Trade Center has just been completed. Carly Simon is singing “You’re So Vain.” (Laughter.) […] There’s the deadly confrontation between American Indians and federal authorities in the town of Old Indian Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Marlon Brando turned down his Oscar in protest of the treatment of American Indians. […] Actor/writer/director Hanay Geiogamah founded the American Indian Theater Ensemble at La MaMa earlier that year with Ellen Stewart and was planning to take his company to tour Indian reservations across the country. Where were you?

MURIEL MIGUEL: […] I was sitting there. First of all I have my two children with me. Marlon Brando has this little tape recorder. It’s a small one. And he’s playing with it and talking into it […] and he says to my daughter, she’s like three and she’s looking at him, she asked him what it is. It’s a magic box. And “That’s right!” he says, “It’s a magic box. If you tell it a secret, it will tell you a secret back.” She said, “It’s a tape recorder.” (Laughter.) […] “Of course the kids know it, right?” And he’s sitting there, he doesn’t have shoes on and his belly’s showing. He has pot belly. And I keep looking at him thinking “I’m looking at Marlon Brando’s pot belly.” It was on 59th street near the Russian Tea Room. Well that’s one thing that happened to us.

You know, I have to talk about Alcatraz for a moment because when Alcatraz was over, one of the people who came to town was a guy named Harjo. Harjo lived with me for about a year or more and stayed with me for a long time. I mean he lived with me—I had a husband, he lived with us. And the baby. And Uncle Joe…he lived with all of us. Then we went to a green corn dance in upstate New York and he met Suzan there. […]

SUZAN HARJO: From my dad’s home community Muskogee, Oconee and Okawaigi, Oklahoma. My dad’s Muskogee and my mom’s Cheyenne so I grew up on both sides of Oklahoma. A little town, really little. I came all the way to New York and went to Onandaga many many times because it’s the closest place to the ceremonies and so I would go up there regularly. I had to come all the way to New York, all the way just outside of Syracuse to meet someone from my dad’s home community that I could call home and say he’s a Harjo, probably...so that was quite wonderful.

So I captured him in fact and brought him to New York with me. And then we began producing, at WBAI and teaching lots of Native people how to edit tape in the days you edited tape. None of it was digitized. He was very involved in activism. One night we did a program. Bob Fass who is still at WBAI…I was in charge of a lot of personality programs. One night he got very sick so he gave me this program. We were doing these really interesting mixes of Muskogee stomp dances and Cheyenne social dances and jazz. We had our friend Jim Pepper mix the Indian tonal scale with jazz tonal scale. And Miles Davis gave him the credit for being the first person to ever do that. He was a wonderful saxophonist. We were doing all sorts of really interesting stuff with music and we got a call from a patrol man and one of the detectives said John Lennon’s on the phone for you. We were like “Yeah, right. We’ve already gone through that crap.” It was John Lennon. He came up and hung out with us a long time and we put a lot of things together and he was very devoted to Native activism. I asked him one time…He would go up to Onandaga because the state wanted to build an acceleration lane rerouted right through the reservation and everyone up and down the route wanted to turn them down. They didn’t even bother to ask the Onandaga nation. So he said, “Oh sure. I’ll go. What’s the worst that can happen?” So he went up to draw attention to what was happening and he did just that and did bring some attention but it didn’t deter the state. The state went on to build this acceleration lane. So we were all up there; everyone wanted to overturn their bulldozers. We didn’t have weapons because the Onandaga feels very strongly about their treaty of peace and friendship with the United States. We’re not going to break that by declaring war or carrying wars into the United States. In fact when the U.S. entered World War II, Onandaga and other people declared war on Germany and Japan and loaned their young men to fight in the war. So on the day of reckoning, everyone was ready and prepared for who knows what and no one came. State troopers did not show up. They didn’t show up and they didn’t show up. Slowly we began to hear what had happened. They had been diverted to Attica. There was some huge melee and mass killing of people there. And they never even showed up. And the state just dropped it after that and any aggression […] So those were the times we were in. Pretty extraordinary times. Everything was just sort of […] And then there was the Wounded Knee.

MURIEL MIGUEL: I remember the first time I heard about it. It was my Uncle Chuck. He said, “Hey, there are Indians at somebody’s ankle.” (Laughter.) At that point, no one knew what was going on. Then we started to get all the messages back and forth. […] What to do here? So I was […] I would come out every night and my ex would come and we would talk. We would just collect money from people in the audience and we sent all that money, even dimes and pennies, we sent everything to Wounded Knee. And then at the end of Wounded Knee there was this big cross section of people that came back […] all these different Indians that were in New York and Bobby Onco was one of them. Bobby Onco was the one of the ones that was identified with the Russian rifle […] he was living with me, again living with me, with my family. […] He was on parole which meant that we had to find some place in Brooklyn for him to go to report. So we went out to find a federal parole officer in downtown Brooklyn. We had to travel through all of the federal buildings looking for a federal agent that we could say, “Here is Bobby Onco and he is reporting to you.” And finally there was this one little room and we asked this guy if he was a federal agent and he says, “Yes.” (Laughter.) It was such a difference between coming in Brooklyn and what Bobby went through out in […] the small towns there because what happened there was […] the guy was like really you did this and that and shook his hand. That was his federal agent. And that’s how I remember Wounded Knee.

SONI MORENO: 1973. I was wearing platform boots.

MURIEL MIGUEL: So was I. (Laughter.)

SONI MORENO: I came to New York in 1972, on New Year’s Day to pursue my acting career. I came upon a few people, Hanay Geiogamah being one of them, and I had been to La MaMa in pursuing theater. I studied Shakespeare and I thought I would come to New York to do Shakespeare only to find they weren’t casting people of color. […] In awe of this, I came to La MaMa and found all this wonderful theater going on. Hanay Geiogamah was doing Native theater and was trying to convince me to go to Oklahoma to do theater. And I was like, “I just arrived in New York to do theater. What am I going to do in Oklahoma?” […] that was the whole process. He was going to go do a tour of Native country. Beyond that, I found not being able to do what I wanted which was Shakespeare […], I would work at La MaMa and various showcases. I did a show that produced Native theater, they were doing a series of young writers, experimental theater. Dennis Reardon had written a play called The Leaf People and it went to Broadway and lasted several days. But it was incredible because it was about the people in the rainforests. It was a rainforest where they were building a highway. And what they did to these indigenous people. Back then […] brown people. I was one of the green people. It all took place on the ceiling. There were ropes… […] Up in the sky. I thought it was brilliant because theater to me is an expression and what I liked about your piece tonight was that it was real. Part of what I learned in this […] music and theater for me…it’s so wonderful to be able to see different work being created but the seed, what’s inspiring, is their own. They’ve made it their own. Once I learned that you can take a piece but once you make it your own, then it lives. You learn from people. You can imitate as I imitated […] and became introduced to music but the theater, how you can take a piece, write a piece and just make it come to life. Some of the pieces that I’ve got to work in New York City, there’s one, Aladdin’s Lamp at La MaMa, these are my favorites that weren’t really popular but I really learned a lot because it introduced me to a lot of different actors from all over the world. That’s the beauty of theater—it’s the world. It’s not in one place it’s a universe of expression.

BETSY: We’re right to the point of my final question. We’re going through another great time, a great social change. The world is changing right in front of us. What words or thoughts or images do you want to share with us? Particularly those members of the theater community or those interested in supporting the Native community—don’t have to be, could be just what comes from your own experience?

MURIEL MIGUEL: I remember when Reagan came in. I was abroad most of that time. When I came back everything was cut, everything was slashed. There was nothing for the arts. All of us were hanging on by our fingernails. It was really a bad time. I remember thinking, “If I don’t survive this, Spiderwoman will not survive.” What we did was just take money out of our pockets and we started […] and we went to tell them and we went to Crystal and George and we spent it on a space and that’s how we survived that time. I expect to survive the same way now. I think that there may be more support out there than there was then. We had a hostile president. “Feed them ketchup—it’s a vegetable.” You know? I think my thoughts now as with Darrell, when Darrell talks about generations, I felt like as Native people it may seem like old hat sometimes that we talk about generations and we talk about going forward, we talk about this all the time and that you’re responsible…you’re responsible for... I remember John Oakwood saying he didn’t care if things were messed up between England and France with the tunnel going through. He’s not going to be here. My reaction to that was, “Yeah, you’re not going to be here but what about your generations? They’re going to be here.” I can’t think that way that I’m not going to be here. I’m responsible even though I’m not going to be here because that groundwork is what we have to think about. And that’s what Darrell…we get that at the end when he says, “It always gets me. There will be children that are not adults, there will be children that don’t know about that. There will be children who think of their culture as a joke.” And that to me is important. It’s important to keep this going. We pass this on, we pass this on, we pass this on. I think […] I’m seventy-one. […] I’m really thinking that what happens now in this change is that Spiderwoman changes and how to do that? How do we do this? I pass it on to my daughter. I pass it on to whoever she wants to work with. Does it change? Is it still a theater group in the same way? Is it a mentoring group? Is it working in film?What is it working in? So now I’m thinking the more we bring in playwrights, and that’s another thing—I was thinking about this with Darrell—I never thought of myself as a playwright or a writer. I had to live; the theater community wasn’t going to support me. So I had to do my thing and create this thing that I was going to do. So I never thought of myself as a playwright for a very long time. You do it because you have to do it because your curiosity is there. Do this piece and what it means to you and get that voice out. So I think all of this stuff is changing now. I think that Native theater now, we have to take it by its force. You know what I mean? We have to take it, grab a hold of it, we have to really lead it. No one else can tell us what to do about this. We have to lead it. And that is something every one of us in theater should really think about now, “We have to lead it. No one can tell us anymore.” It’s not…[…] and then told what to do. Now it’s move over.

SUZAN HARJO: That was inspiring. (Laughter.) I was thinking how different my life would have been if I stayed in New York and not left the year after your question.

MURIEL MIGUEL: I was heartbroken.

SUZAN HARJO: That was so sad. Muriel had selected two people to be Spiderwoman with her. I was one. Our dear friend Josie Terran who was Muriel’s childhood friend, was the other. I left New York for a variety of reasons, mainly because New York was killing my kids and my husband. So that’s why I left at the opportune moment. I had gotten a call from my old friend Richard [D. Bramante] …asking if I would take his job for the American Press Association in Washington D.C. which was a totally different planet. I would not have flourished there or stayed there long after had I not had theater there. I’d never been able to write a script, coach them in the ways what my son says “Indian moderne” had it not been for my theater and arts training here in New York and the grittiness of New York. So it broke my heart to have to not be Spiderwoman. And to leave my job at WBAI. You mentioned Joe Chaikin. This is how good it was there. He called me one day and said, “I have three plays that Samuel Beckett has written for the radio. Will you produce them and I’ll direct them and those will be the premieres of those three Beckett plays if your interested in.” Hold the phone. We could do anything we wanted during that time. Philip Glass on the radio. We were doing a lot of the equivalent of that in poetry and producing the radio version of William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch.” What a treat that was! It really was a treat working with him. Things like that. You look back and say this was quite a time. What Muriel was talking about…and what was so well-articulated also in the play is the talk about responsibility towards the seventh generation. Where you don’t just have responsibility just for your kids and their kids and their kids and their kids into the seventh generation and you have to base all your decisions on the seventh generation. In the Plains we have a little different take on that tradition but it’s the same concept. We talk about respect for the three generations past. […] Respecting your own time and your own place in the world. It’s the same seventh generation concept. You’re responsible for a long time. When I moved to Washington, […] I very quickly learned there were no Natives doing advocacy. I thought it’s going to be easier for me to learn the advocacy stuff than for the white guys who are making the Indian policy to learn the Indian stuff. So that’s what I did. I was the Indian on Carter’s campaign. People were saying “Jimmy who?” I was the Indian in transition who worked in the Carter administration. I felt the same way about Barack Obama. Hence my friend Margaret Sanderson’s great piece […] (Applause.)

BETSY RICHARDS: Do we have time for one or two questions in the audience? Do we have any questions?

Audience #1: It seems you all have wonderful things to say about what’s inspiring to your work, things that spring into your creative work. In working in Native American theater, [I wonder] whether you have thoughts about potential audiences that hindered you, confused you or inspired you in ways, performing for white people or performing for Native people? Are we just trying to do what we do and let the chips fall where they may?

MURIEL MIGUEL: Well…all that happened to me. One of them was that I started Spiderwoman as a feminist theater group and as we went along it became everything. At one point we were gay/straight, grandmothers/mothers, married/divorced/single. It was very exciting but awful. (Laughter.) We were mostly targeting women so we talked to woman, worked with women, we mentored women. Then it was obvious our community, the Native community really wanted us and things started to change. Then it was the Native community which was male and female. We were talking to them, all those things that were pertinent to them…but it was always theater. No matter what we did it was always theater. We may not have thought of ourselves as playwrights but we were writing like mad on anything—napkins, tablecloths. We have these archives with napkins and tablecloths. Yes. It was always theater. We always had theater people. They thought we were a little nuts at times. I think they didn’t understand us but it didn’t change. And now it’s everyone. It’s Native people, that’s our main goal always and women. And it’s theater.

BETSY RICHARDS: I’m being given that now it’s time. Thank you for coming.


MURIEL MIGUEL: I agree with Darrell. I really think…I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so glad you’re doing this. And your director, Herbie.