Native American theater

Social engagement: politics, resistance, and art

2018 in Review, Part 5: Oregon ArtsWatch visited creators in all media who are addressing problems ranging from racism to climate change

The world is indisputably in a precarious position — not just politically and socially, but economically and even ecologically. It is a moment of crisis. Artists play a crucial role in moments like these, helping the rest of us arrive at a shared cognition of what is — of seeing, sensing, and feeling that roil of life in a way that clarifies, opens eyes, and maybe even showing us a way forward.

What struck me in compiling this year-end reading list on socially engaged art in Oregon is the extent to which artists strove not simply to see and interpret, but to peel back layers, to reveal what is largely hidden — either by design or by accident — by institutions, by geography, and even by the telling of history. There may be no “new” stories to tell, but too many stories haven’t been heard by those who need to hear them, by people who perhaps want to see, but don’t know how.

So dive into this compilation. There’s a bit of everything: visual art, theater, music, conceptual art, literature. And, of course, the usual disclaimer: The choices here are highly subjective and presented in no particular order, and obviously are not intended to be comprehensive.

 


 

Witnesses in a churning world

Artist Hung Liu says “Official Portraits: Immigrant” (2006, lithograph with collage) is one of three self-portraits representing stages of her life.

Sept. 27: ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks checked out a fall show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem called Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. It featured a lineup of artists who look at the world through a lens that is both personal and cultural, and in a way that connects our present moment with history.

“The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion,” Hicks wrote. “But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.”

The article is a mini-tour of the exhibition itself, with nearly 20 pieces accompanied by the artists’ personal statements reflecting the roil and rebellion of their creative processes.

 


 

David Ludwig: Telling the Earth’s story through music

Chamber Music Northwest performs ‘Pangæa.’ Photo: Tom Emerson.

July 27: “Pangæa was the single huge continent on Earth encompassed by one vast ocean over 200 million years ago – eons before dinosaurs, much less humans,” musician David Ludwig writes in the program notes for composition of the same name. “It was an entirely different planet than one we’d recognize today, lush with life of another world.” That’s the world Ludwig interpreted musically in the West Coast premiere of Pangæa, a piece inspired by the ancient Earth, and the threat of extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. Matthew Andrews talked to him about this extraordinary piece of music for ArtsWatch. Best of all: You can listen to it yourself.

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The hidden history of ‘Oklahoma!’

Contemporary reinterpretations of the classic American musical may be getting back to its root: It's based on a play by a gay Cherokee man.

By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER

Seventy-five years ago, as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s new musical Oklahoma! was beginning its sellout run on Broadway, the Times ran an indignant letter from Eva Paul, of Provincetown. “It is rather amusing to notice the insouciance and naïve bravado with which all the perpetrators of Oklahoma! eliminate all mention of Lynn Riggs,” she wrote. “After all, did he or did he not give them a plot to which they more or less adhered and a galaxy of characters which none of them ever approached in their other undertakings?”

Original poster for “Oklahoma!” on Broadway, 1943. Wikimedia Commons

He did: a decade earlier, Riggs had enjoyed a brief Broadway success at the Theatre Guild with his play Green Grow the Lilacs, which evoked the cowboys and farmers of his childhood in Indian Territory, before Oklahoma became a state. Traditional folk songs and picturesque dialogue enlivened a courtship triangle: whether Laurey, a young homesteader, would go to a party with Curly, a cocky cowboy, or Jeeter Fry, a rough farmhand. In 1942, the Guild’s producer, Theresa Helburn, saw a revival of Green Grow the Lilacs and thought it could furnish the material for an American folk opera on the model of Porgy and Bess, which the Guild had also staged. She engaged Richard Rodgers—his partnership with Larry Hart dissolving as Hart fell prey to alcoholism and depression—to compose the music and Oscar Hammerstein—longing for a hit after a series of flops with his Show Boat partner, Jerome Kern—to adapt Riggs’s play and write the lyrics.

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‘Manahatta’: Twice-told tale

Mary Kathryn Nagle's world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival gets to the roots of Wall Street and a centuries-old culture clash

ASHLAND — Manahatta playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle, somewhat surprisingly, is an attorney. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. These identities inform her writing, as evidenced in Manahatta, a world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which opened in late March and continues through October 27.

Manahatta is a play set in two worlds — the modern-day (Oklahoma and Wall Street) and hundreds of years earlier in Manahatta (what is now Manhattan) — about a woman set in two worlds. Jane (Tanis Parenteau) is a contemporary Lenape woman living in Manhattan and returning as often as her success on Wall Street will allow to visit her family in Anadarko, Oklahoma. Parenteau also portrays a character named Le-le-wa’-you in the past Manahatta.

Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i (Rainbow Dickerson, right) tells Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) that Manahatta is no longer a safe place for the Lenape.Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Jane’s Wall Street success is juxtaposed to the life of her sister, Debra (Rainbow Dickerson, a welcome addition to the OSF company, who brings such magic to this role that you will hardly believe she is the same woman who portrays Bianca in Othello), who has stayed at home and is fighting to keep the Lenape language alive. Their mother, Bobbie (Sheila Tousey) knows the language, but refused to speak it for many years, so the daughters aren’t fluent. And, as the story and reality go, the language is at risk of being forgotten.

The Lenape people existed peacefully for centuries in the Northeastern United States, including what is now New York City. Europeans did not understand the Lenape, and the Lenape didn’t understand these new people, so the “purchase” of Manhattan was much more like a robbery. Jane comes face to face with these stark realizations while living in New York. She is mostly glued to her office, but manages to learn how Wall Street got its name (the Dutch traders built a wall to keep out the people they stole the land from).

Everyone — particularly her boss, Joe (Danforth Comins), and his boss, Dick (Jeffrey King) — keeps telling Jane how amazing it is that she is having such success here: her, a Native American, successful on Wall Street and paving a path for others to follow? The irony, of course, is not lost on the audience that Jane’s path started here and that, in fact, her ancestors literally carved the path (Broadway was the original trail carved through the brush of Manahatta by her people).

Every actor in this play shows great range, portraying someone in the earlier time period, too (and transitioning from one character to the other onstage, before our eyes): Parenteau becomes Le-le-wa’-you, in love with Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores, who plays Jane’s Lenape friend, Luke, in Anadarko, who has been adopted by the town banker/church choir director, played by David Kelly). There are no clear-cut transitions, and often the past starts crawling in while those in the present continue their story. This is especially poignant when Jane is experiencing a crisis on Wall Street and her ancestors join her, recalling the real tragedy that occurred here so long ago.

Director Laurie Woolery has managed the transitions impeccably — with a strong assist from lighting designer James F. Ingalls, who can shift our attention even when the action on stage doesn’t change. Woolery is respectful of and attentive to the playwright’s script and the Lenape history. “So respectfully,” writes Woolery, who lives in New York, “we have been excavating this history out of the soil, rocks and roots of this sacred island despite [it] being buried beneath cement, steel and glass.”

Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores)gives Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) a wampum necklace that belonged to his mother. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Dickerson is also Le-le-wa’-you’s sister and Tousey once again her mother in the Lenape world. Jane’s bosses are traders who help, each in his own way, rip this precious land from the Lenape people. Kelly is a pastor in Manahatta. In both worlds, Kelly sees himself as the “savior” of the Lenape: He goes so far in Anadarko as to tell his adopted Lenape son, Luke, that he saved him. The savior complex is hard to watch — as the church choir director who also works at the bank effectively takes Bobbie’s lifelong home away from her. It’s not Manahatta, but it serves as an effective symbol, bringing up fresh for Bobbie all she has lost: her husband, her language, her people’s culture, and now her home.

Comins, King, and Kelly all portray characters that must be difficult to embrace—uttering words like “savage” and continually treating the Lenape as less than people (“You speak!” they exclaim, delighted and surprised as if a baby had spoken its first words, when a Lenape person speaks their language). Each of these actors does a fine job (and Comins deserves extra credit for bringing something completely different to this stage within a day, or hours, of portraying Iago in Othello). But they leave the emotional resonance and most powerful moments to the Native characters.

The actors make their transitions from one time period to another brilliantly, not only due to strong performances and shifts in language and mannerisms, but also with the help of costumes (designed by E.B. Brooks) that transfer from one period to another, and of the set (by scenic designer Mariana Sanchez) that looks so simple at first glance — a table, some rocks, a chair — but contains so much: centuries, even.

This play points out what should be obvious: Our successes in America are built on the backs and lives of the Native people who occupied this land before our ancestors took it from them and relegated them to reservations, where they were ignored at best or gravely mistreated at worst. There is no clearer indication or symbol of what we have built this country on than in Manhattan in general and Wall Street in particular. The Dutch traders were able to steal Manhattan easily without guilt, because the Lenape people did not understand the concept of “owning” a place. So, they were driven out, violently and permanently (or so Jane’s “rare” success would seem to indicate), and the Europeans were able to make millions and build skyscrapers as symbols of their wealth.

Luke (Steven Flores) has doubts about the mortgage loan his adoptive father Michael (David Kelly) has encouraged a friend to take out to pay off her family’s medical bills. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

But if you build your life and hopes and dreams around monetary successes, Nagle warns, you are bound to lose it all. Destroying the ways and lives and homes of the Native people whose land this truly is will not lead to redemption — no, I gather, not even if you’re a pastor or a church choir director. Manahatta may leave you shattered, but it also offers a glimmer of hope. Debra’s work preserving the Lenape language, Jane learning about Manhattan’s history, and this world-premiere play in the Thomas Theatre are all reasons to believe that all is not yet lost.

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DramaWatch: First Nations first

The week onstage: A trio of shows by Native American playwrights; some Freddie Mercury; "La Belle" returns. Plus, new seasons news.

With a rising anti-immigration fever sweeping the United States and President Trump’s threat on Tuesday to deploy military guards along the Mexican border until his exclusionary wall can be built, it is well and truly time for this: A trifecta of plays by Native American writers highlights Oregon’s theater week. Once again, now: Who’s interloping on whom?

“Manahatta”: Se-ket-tu-may-qua (Steven Flores) and Mother (Sheila Tousey) think they are signing an agreement for the Lenape to trade with the Dutch indefinitely. Jakob (Danforth Comins, left) and Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King) have other intentions. Photo: Jenny Graham / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

The world-premiere production of Manahatta, by Cherokee writer and attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle, is off and running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. A tale of then and now, it’s the story of Jane Snake, a securities trader who lands on Wall Street in 2008, on the island that was home to her ancestors until they were forced out in the 1600s, and the struggles of her contemporary family in Oklahoma.

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DramaWatch: Two pair and a kicker

In the cards on Portland stages this week: a pair of plays by Native American writers, Chekhov in New Jersey, improv off the Deep End

Sometimes as shows and curtains open and close, a writer flounders for a framing device. I know: Let’s play poker. “Two pair is a poker hand containing two cards of the same rank, two cards of another rank and one card of a third rank (the kicker).” This week in Portland theater deals us just such a hand.

Let’s start (as never) with two comedy-improv-mixed-use-spaces of seemingly equal rank: Siren and Deep End. Siren’s showing Rosie Rose Productions’ The Three Sisters of Weehawken, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Chekhov adaptation plucked from Russia and plopped into a New Jersey town that we can only assume contrasts to Moscow at least as starkly as Chekhov intended when he observed: “In Moscow, you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and where nobody knows you, and you don’t feel, all the same, that you’re a stranger. And here, you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger … and a lonely stranger.”

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Portland’s pre-eminent “Drag Queen Clown” Carla Rossi is not who you think she is.

Well, she is Portland’s pre-eminent “Drag Queen Clown,”—but the man who plays that role, Anthony Hudson, wants audiences of his latest show Looking for Tiger Lily to know he’s not actually as white as his greasepaint. Three-eighths Native American, with a fuller-blooded dad and more Native-looking brothers, Hudson has spent his share of time on “the Res,” attending powwows and Native American school.

So how dare his alter-ego Carla Rossi don a brown-grocery-bag “Indian vest,” surround herself with the Dollymops, a gaggle of white girls wearing war-paint clownface and pink and blue yarn braids, and open the show singing “What Makes The Red Man Red?” Is this cultural reclamation, or mockery? Quickly ditching his drag persona and re-emerging as Anthony, Hudson goes on to explain how his three-eighths Native sometimes struggles with whatever proportions of him are gay, trans, and campy. Between songs, he spends this show dissecting his conflicting cultural impulses, with a wry fondness for all sides.

A multiple clash of cultures. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

A multiple clash of cultures. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

But throughout, the Clown Queen proves irrepressible! In several scenes, she looms large on the big screen behind him, interrupting his thoughtful musings with brash generalizations. White people will do that sometimes, Hudson seems to demonstrate—even if they’re you.

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