Retracing Our Theatrical Roots

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving, a time for gratitude, for feasting, for family. But is also a time to relearn the myths we’ve been taught about the landing on Plymouth Rock. (They ain’t even eat turkey back then, y’all). It is in acknowledging every part of our past that helps us repair the damage erasure has wrought on marginalized communities. Today, we celebrate a holiday allegedly based on a friendship between Native Americans and colonizers, yet indigenous people are still being brutalized on their own land. Nothing is more American than contradiction. (To learn more about the #NoDAPL movement in Standing Rock, ND, click here. )

Art, music, dance, ritual, and performance are about as old as recorded history. And just like a certain lost and murderous explorer didn’t discover America, performance on this land did not begin in the colonies. For quite a while now, I’ve wanted to take a look at the history of North American performance. This is my first go-round on this topic, and the following is quite a broad overview. But a girl has to start somewhere.

As a mentioned in my post last month, ritual is a huge part of what constitutes civilization. This holds true for the hundreds of Native American nations that developed a rich cultural legacy of performance-based rituals. Just a few that survived the genocide and erasure of American colonialism include Navajo Chantways, Ojibway Bear Ceremonies, Zuni Rain Dance, and Plains Medicine Bundle Rituals. As Paula Gunn Allen writes in her book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions:

The tribes seek – through song, ceremony, legend, sacred stories (myths), and tales–to embody, articulate, and share reality, to bring the isolated, private self into harmony and balance with this reality, to  verbalize the sense of majesty and reverent mystery of all things, and to actualize, in language, those truths that give to humanity its greatest significance and dignity.

These traditions have had a major impact on the development of modern Native American theatre. Early twentieth century playwrights and performers like Te Ata Fisher, Will Rogers, and Lynn Riggs paved the way for the civil rights era Native theatre revolution. At the same time that a new generation of African-American, Asian, and Latinx theatre folks were creating radical works, Native American theatre-makers were forming new tools of their resistance. Programs and companies such as the Native American Theater Ensemble, Institute of American Indian Arts, and Spiderwoman Theater aimed to bring truthful representation of Native people to the stage; a stark contrast to the “Noble Savage/Barbaric Savage” myths perpetuated by white artists. Theatre is a necessary and vital part of any revolution and can work in conjunction with film, music, and other media to reshape the national imagination. (Note: I learned a great deal about the history of Native American performance from this paper by Dr. Courtney Elkin Mohler).

The systematic erasure of Native Americans from their own history and lands was so complete that in 1976 when the Wampanoags  of Mashpee filed a suit to reclaim lands taken over by the town in 1869, they lost the case on “grounds that the Wampanoag tribe had been exterminated in King Philip’s War three hundred years earlier. Even though anthropologists, ethnohistorians, and others testified to the contrary, the Mashpee Wampanoags were told that they did not exist.” Ain’t that some shit?

Despite the fact U.S funding for public arts is more scarce than in Canada and elsewhere, Native theatre has expanded rapidly in the past twenty years, largely thanks to Native Voices, a theatre company formed at the University of Illinois and committed to producing new Native works.

A common objection to putting more Native artists, stories, and creators onstage is that theatre directors simply don’t know any Native actors. In a sharply-written piece from Howlround’s “Instead Of Redface” series, Madeline Sayet responds to this easy out:

People are not born actors. They become them. Make space for them, invite them, and they will be there. But if there is no work and they are repeatedly told that they do not belong in the theatre, you will be responsible for creating an environment of hopelessness for Native artists, and telling the world that those voices do not matter.

Black people were taken from our home. Native people had their home taken from them. Our histories are parallel, intersecting, linked, and distinct. I stand with my Native sisters and brothers in the fight for sovereignty, justice, and decolonization.  ✊🏾

In future posts, I hope to continue to explore non-white theatre traditions all over the world. There is so much we are missing out on when we only read, watch, and learn theatre from a colonial worldview. In my college theatre program, there was one required class called “Global Theater” that attempted to crystallize the majority of the world’s performance traditions into one semester. Isn’t it odd that most of the world is brown but most of our education is white? I want to add my voice to the rising tide of artists of color who demand our stories be told. Of course, I will still tell you about the plays I see and the adventures I go on and my random thoughts on everything from Fall TV to self care.  I’m just sharpening this blog’s point-of-view, finding exactly where I stand in the ever-expanding world of online content.

Thanks for reading y’all, please share, and don’t forget to subscribe!

Love and theatre (and alllll the leftovers),

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