New Native American Play Feels Timely After Wooster Group Criticized for Using 'Redface'
Mohawk elder Aunt Bev (LaVonne Rae Andrews) and National Guard Captain Hewitt (Matt Kirkwood) face off at a protest on the border of indigenous lands.
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Watching the world premiere of Stand-Off at HWY #37, Vickie Ramirez's world premiere play at Native Voices of the Autry, it's difficult not to reflect on another portrayal of Native Americans that was just presented across town - the Wooster Group's production of Cry, Trojans! at REDCAT. That Troilus and Cressida adaptation (which closed Sunday), has drawn criticism from members of the Native community and others for its "redface" portrayal of a fictionalized Native American tribe with a completely Anglo cast.
Native Voices' naturalistic production, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, couldn't be more different from the Wooster Group's stylized, experimental rendering. The latter was not trying to capture an authentic, specific Native experience, but used a pastiche of that culture as a set piece in depicting a soon-to-be-annihilated culture - and that may have been part of the problem. If the Wooster Group employed Native culture as a means to an artistic end, Stand-Off at HWY #37, though still in need of development, succeeds in portraying the complex, varied experiences of Native peoples as an end in itself.
In Stand-Off, a National Guardsman of Tuscarora heritage stationed at the border of a Haudenosaunee reservation in upstate New York, is assigned to keep the peace during the protest of a planned highway expansion that will infringe on tribal lands. Thomas (Eagle Young) at first remains loyal to his commanding officer (Matt Kirkwood), but under the influence of a Mohawk elder (LaVonne Rae Andrews) he begins to question his values.
By pairing Thomas with a black female colleague (Tinasha LaRayé) and introducing a Mohawk woman (DeLanna Studi) who has returned to the "rez" after temporarily disavowing her roots, the production engages in lively debate about racism, sexism and who has the right to feel oppressed. It has a way of turning traditional "American" assumptions on their head by asserting elements of Native culture, like traditions of communal discourse and female warriors, as alternative bases for notions of free speech and equal rights. We see the splinters between cultural traditionalists and acculturated Indians, the potential for who-had-it-worse rivalry among minorities (at least Native Americans still have some of their language and culture, Thomas' colleague points out), alongside an awareness that this kind of sniping does little but reinforce their own disenfranchisement.
At the same time, the show has structural difficulties. Ramirez expanded her script from a one-act play, and the details of characters' relationships still feel sketchy and somewhat hastily drawn. One character, a nosy New York Times reporter, remains an unsympathetic caricature. After a slow beginning, events escalate too quickly: Thomas' most crucial decision takes place in an instant, without the premeditated struggle that could make it more compelling. Later, his plight lacks the tension needed to accompany such drama.
But the show asks the right questions, and even posits some answers. At the performance reviewed, the actors held an audience talkback to discuss the Wooster Group production and why it matters to have Native actors portray Native roles onstage. As Studi observed, you wouldn't cast a production of Roots without black actors; whenever possible, the same standards should apply to portrayals of indigenous peoples. In that light, the very existence of this production and Native Voices - the only Equity theater company in the country devoted to telling Native American stories - feels like a victory.
Native Voices at the Autry, Wells Fargo Theater, Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park. Through Mar. 16. (323) 667-2000 ext. 299, theautry.org.
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