In the popular imagination, Native Americans are rarely associated with humor; they're represented as either solemn keepers of ancient wisdom or long-suffering victims of genocide and oppression. When they are featured in comedic situations, they've historically been the butt of jokes in movies and on TV — where they're often portrayed by non-Native actors — rather than the creators and beneficiaries of that humor. Although this is slowly changing, the Native Sketch Comedy Showcase aims to give indigenous actors a boost toward stage and screen, particularly in comedic roles.
The showcase was launched in 2013 in conjunction with L.A. Skins Fest, a Native American film festival now going on its 10th year. This year's fourth annual showcase, which took place Nov. 16, featured seven Native actors in sketches written by seasoned writers from UCB, iO West and the Groundlings. By and large, the sketches didn't engage with explicitly Native themes, instead offering the actors a chance to show their wide comedic range.
"I wouldn't mind getting sketches with Native themes, but my main goal is to show the actors performing strong, funny material," says festival and showcase founder Ian Skorodin. "One of our goals is to get just normal roles as normal people, such as a doctor, a cop, a lawyer, an accountant. A lot of TV shows have the Native American episode where they'll go to a reservation and Indian actors will get work for that time, but it won't continue. We have great actors who just happen to be Native American."
Many of the actors agree, viewing the showcase as an opportunity to prove that they can play outside of narrow, stereotypical roles. "Too often we get relegated to 'buckskin and feather' roles, or if we're not, then it still has to be some kind of contemporary stoic Indian," said Jason Grasl, one of the showcase performers.
"It's better that the sketches do not have Native American themes, because it shows that actors of any background can play any type of role," Leandra Ryan said. "We are trying to break stereotypes, not reinforce them."
For Noah Watts, having specifically Native content would limit the show's accessibility. "With Native themes, you're going to need a Native audience, otherwise they may not get the jokes," he said.
By eschewing a singular Native theme, the showcase highlights the diversity within the Native American community, bringing together performers who represent just a few of the 560-plus federally recognized tribes: Blackfeet, Crow, Choctaw, Lakota, Coahuiltecan, Cherokee. It also reflects the diversity of their backgrounds, with roots in large cities, small towns and reservations all over the country.
"All the images I had growing up were Dances With Wolves, and I didn't necessarily connect with that because I grew up in a small town of 250 people in Illinois," Rainy Fields said. "Most Native Americans don't grow up on reservations, they grow up in metropolitan areas." Other showcase participants hail from small towns in Connecticut, Montana, even Long Island. Skorodin, the festival's founder, was raised in Chicago, the son of a Choctaw mother and a Jewish father; he grew up attending synagogue.
This diversity means Native actors can play a wide range of roles, from Caucasian to Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern. "I'm very white-looking, I know. Especially in this industry, you're judged completely on how you look, and I look like I'm from Minnesota," said Nicole Starrett, whose wavy, blond hair and rosy cheeks give her a girl-next-door appearance.
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On the other end of the spectrum, Grasl has played Asian and Mexican characters ("The world is mostly brown," he noted), while Shaun Taylor-Corbett played Italian crooner Frankie Valli onstage and was cast as a Dominican character in In the Heights. "I'm very connected to my identity as a Native American, but I want to be able to play so many different roles as an artist," Taylor-Corbett said, citing Al Pacino as an inspiration.
There were indeed a wide range of roles on view in the showcase. In nine tight sketches, the actors transitioned from cavemen debating club regulation, to industry insiders lampooning Hollywood sexism, to divorced parents playing a ridiculous game of one-upsmanship to win the affections of their child. Not every sketch was a winner, but those that connected drew peals of laughter from the packed house. More than simply being funny for their own sake, the sketches served the purpose of highlighting the versatility of these performers for the assembled casting agents and scouts.
In "Grandma June's Car Ride," Starrett donned a kerchief to play a sweet, elderly matriarch who regales her family with stories of menstruation and flatulence. Taylor-Corbett proved a deft physical comedian in "Raised by Muppets" (written by Joey Clift, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe), which took the premise of first-date awkwardness to absurd lengths. The evening closed with a particularly meta sketch set in a support group for half-baked characters in half-finished scripts. Shyla Marlin shone as a young Jewish girl, Carley Liebowitz, the 12-year-old heroine of a Twilight-like vampire screenplay written by a 12-year-old girl named — you guessed it — Carley Liebowitz. Not a single role was explicitly Native American.
"The point about diversity that's been made over the past year," Grasl said, "is that we just want people who aren't white to have a chance to play the same roles as white performers — including our own."