A Theater Festival Examines the Thorny Issues of Native Americans in Sports

It's not easy being a Native American athlete. Just ask Dennis Tibbetts. He'd been running track most of his life when he was drafted into the Marines in 1966 before heading to Vietnam. But if Tibbetts, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe tribe of Minnesota, proved his prowess -- say, by winning an intramural race -- his fellow soldiers would just shrug. "He's Indian," they'd say. "Of course he's a good runner!"

There's a shred of truth to the stereotype, acknowledges Darrell Dennis, a First Nations actor, writer, and comedian from Toronto. His own junior high track coach advised him to train for the Olympics (until, as an eighth grader, he blew out both his knees in sports-related accidents). The key, Dennis says, is that Native Americans tend to grow up on remote reservations with limited transportation and athletic equipment. Running makes sense, both for getting around and for exercise.

Still, Dennis laughs, "I know a lot of Native people who can barely walk without tripping."

The joys and struggles of life as an Indian athlete -- and everything in-between -- is the subject of the second annual short play festival from Native Voices at the Autry, the country's only Equity theater company devoted to producing new work by indigenous playwrights of North America. Six writers -- including Tibbetts and Dennis -- will showcase their work in staged readings Nov. 3 as part of the Autry's American Indian Arts Marketplace. The theme celebrates the achievements of Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox member who won gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics 100 years ago.

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The plays' abbreviated format is intended to encourage new writers who might otherwise be too intimidated to submit, says Jean Bruce Scott, who co-founded Native Voices in 1993 with her husband, Randy Reinholz. She'll be watching carefully for stories with development potential, and help award the festival's thousand-dollar cash prize.

Tibbetts, who now holds a doctorate in counseling, has written his second play, about a former athletic legend who encounters the up and comer expected to beat his long-standing record. Tibbett's grandfather captained the track team at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School only a few years after Thorpe attended, and Tibbetts himself set a high school record in the mile that stood for 20 years.

In Dennis' Home of the Running Brave, an Olympian who wants to compete under his tribal nation's flag clashes with the Games committee. The veteran performer, whose one-man show Tales of an Urban Indian toured the U.S. and Canada, says the script tackles the thorny issues of identity many Native people face. "Are you wrong for wanting to be an American? Do you have to give up being an American to be a Native citizen?" he asks. "Can you be both?"

Serious questions to be sure, but all the playwrights were advised to bring the funny this year. Even so, politically correct audiences can be nervous about tittering at what appear to be insensitive jokes. "They need permission to laugh at the Indian," says Scott, whose husband, Reinholz, is Choctaw. She knows from years behind the curtain that Native audiences guffaw the loudest -- and she's hoping that helps everyone else loosen up. About half the Autry's audiences are non-Indian, with whites, Latinos, and African Americans represented in the mix.

In the end, Scott's work is about curating an experience that will entertain no matter who shows up.

"Our main goal is to tell a good story," she says. "You don't need to be Native to get this."

Native Voices at the Autry's Short Play Festival debuts Sat., Nov. 3 at 3 p.m., Wells Fargo Theater, Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. 323-667-2000, ext. 299, www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org. Admission is free with entry to the American Indian Arts Marketplace.

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