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‘Where We Belong’ at Oregon Shakespeare Festival tackles colonialism, language, ethnocide, and assimilation

Madeline Sayet's play, at the festival in Ashland through Oct. 15, strives to reconcile whether an Indigenous person can love the most famous writer produced by a colonial power.

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In an ethereal landscape, Jessica Ranville as Achokaysis grapples with big questions about identity in Madeline Sayet's “Where We Belong” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival
In an ethereal landscape, Jessica Ranville as Achokayis grapples with big questions about identity in Madeline Sayet’s “Where We Belong” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Madeline Sayet’s Where We Belong at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a 90-minute play featuring a single actor on a stage adorned with little more than a rounded curb of rock that winds across the floor like a python. Overhead, thin bars of fluorescent light occasionally dip into the scene, which is periodically illuminated to evoke a kind of cosmos.

For all the brevity and minimalism, the sensation is both intimate and epic.

And if this illuminating play, which runs through Oct. 15 in the Thomas Theatre, seems like an exercise in the mind regarding itself, that’s because it literally is. Sayet wrote it as a sort of catharsis in 2018 upon returning from studying Shakespeare in London and finding herself torn between two powerful cultural tides: her heritage as a Mohegan woman who grew up in what is now called Connecticut and her passion for the plays and language of the most famous writer a colonialist power ever produced.

“This was never meant to be a play,” she writes in the script. “When I arrived home from London in the spring of 2018, my feet didn’t quite stick right to the earth anymore. It was a truly disturbing feeling as a Mohegan person.”

In what amounted to a lengthy, therapeutic journal entry, Sayet grappled with a host of complicated questions, like whether (as a Mohegan) missing England made her a traitor. Also, questions about borders, language, and culture. “As an Indigenous person in a globalized society,” she mused, “is there a place where I get to belong?”

Where We Belong premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in June 2019 as part of the multidisciplinary Origins Festival in London. The play is essentially a memoir molded into a stirring theatrical piece, and Sayet played the single character, Achokayis. It was directed there by Mei Ann Teo, who has continued to helm productions as the play made its way across the United States. For the Ashland production, she directs Canadian actor Jessica Ranville, whose own Indigenous heritage is Red River Métis.

Teo’s program notes testify to the depth of the play’s dive into colonialism, language, ethnocide, and assimilation.

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“Each time I’ve worked on Where We Belong in the past five years, I’ve heard something new,” she writes. “As I change, the story reaches some new place in me. The story has played a part of my own becoming. Inside my colonized Singaporean self born into a conservative Christian family, I am reminded how the places we were born … are the very places we need to question, to heal, to interrogate, and celebrate.”

Sayet is the great-niece of the celebrated Mohegan medicine woman and anthropologist Gladys Tantaquidgeon and the daughter of Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who, as the Mohegan Tribe’s Medicine Woman and tribal historian, has dedicated her life to repatriations. That sets the stage for the tension between two worlds, illustrated in scenes Achokayis has with her mother:

Do you know what it’s like to dedicate your life to the survival of a small group of Indians in Connecticut?’” he mother asks. “Do you know your mission is your survival?”

Yes, Mom.”

Then WHY are you running across the ocean to study a white man?”

I’m not running! This is what I’m really good at. This is how I can help!”

Where We Belong is that help. Regrettably, the people who most need to see it — to hear Sayet’s stories and to engage with the material and think about what the playwright acknowledges are enormously complicated issues – are likely to dismiss it as “woke” bunk. Which is too bad, because the play never feels like a polemic club, and one can hardly accuse it of being anti-Shakespeare. In interviews, Sayet has said she devoured the complete works as a kid and has dedicated her life to studying, directing, and sharing the plays. But her engagement with those 400-year-old white European male texts, as a Mohegan woman, was clearly a disorienting — or perhaps reorienting — experience.

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Achokaysis (played by Jessica Ranville) notes, “Most people don’t like talking about colonialism as much as they like talking about Shakespeare.” Photo by: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Achokayis (played by Jessica Ranville) notes, “Most people don’t like talking about colonialism as much as they like talking about Shakespeare.” Photo by: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Yes, the plays are brilliant and beautiful, but their introduction in colonialist “Indian schools” helped to virtually eradicate the languages and stories that had served Indigenous cultures for thousands of years. Harvard University and Dartmouth College, Achokayis notes, were designed to carry out cultural genocide.

“It is in their charters,” she says in a scene recounting a conversation with a (presumably) white person who has trouble accepting this. “You can’t just say no because it offends your understanding of the world. Many, many schools of all grade levels were founded to educate and assimilate Indians.”

The complexity of issues Achokayis/Sayet grapples with is brought out in another scene that sketches the history of Mohegan engagement with the Europeans. In 1636, the Pequot tribe, with whom the Mohegans were once united, found itself under Puritan assault. Some Mohegans sided with the invaders. It did not end well.

The Pequots are actually doing quite well for a while, but the British, you see, they want to win. So in the night, while the chief is away, they burn the Pequot village to the ground, massacring everyone in their homes and shooting anyone who tries to escape. Only a few children survive.”

A footnote in the script elaborates on the Mystic Massacre, as it is now called, of May 26, 1637: As many as 700 Pequot men, women, and children were killed in their homes, many burned alive. “The Governor declared the massacre, which reportedly horrified even some who did the killing, as ‘A day of Thanksgiving.’” It’s just one instance, Achokayis observes, of how many Indigenous peoples have a “complicated relationship” with the English.

To be sure, it is a wrenching tale, although it is not representative of the play’s overall tone as Achokayis cycles through a series of anecdotes culled from four centuries of colonialism and her own experiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Some are amusing, or at least give Ranville room to employ a nimble sense of humor, such as the realization that the Mohegan word for the bird Sayet was named after “sounds like a porn name!”

But all serve to illuminate the “complicated” from a unique angle. An encounter with a Swedish border agent who quizzes Achokayis about how she would have voted in the Brexit referendum (it’s not exactly clear if the “wrong” answer would have put her back on the plane) raises serious questions about borders and gatekeeping. Visiting a lone Mohegan gravesite in London offers a glimpse into the tribe’s spirituality. An exchange with a British museum employee efficiently unpacks appropriation, as the man confesses that the remains of 12,000 Indigenous people (“not including hair”) are stored by the museum.

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“Don’t worry though,” the employee says. “They haven’t displayed any of the Native American remains for at least a decade now.”

‘Then why don’t you let them come home?” Achokayis asks quietly. “These are our families. If you aren’t even displaying them, what possible reason could you have to keep them?” It’s a powerful moment, although I wish the dialogue had somehow included the jaw-dropper one finds only in the footnotes: “The obsession with holding onto Native remains in the U.S. is ongoing,” Sayet writes. “A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine titled ‘When Museums Rushed to Fill Their Room with Bones,’ estimated the number of Native American remains in American museums as a whole to be about 500,000.”

In what I found to be the play’s most interesting segments, Sayet explores issues of representation and language through the prism of The Tempest, the only play Shakespeare wrote featuring what historians and critics have generally agreed is an Indigenous character. Caliban, whomever or whatever Shakespeare intended him to be, is indigenous to the island on which Prospero enslaves him. It’s an intriguing analogy when one considers that John Winthrop Jr., a founder of the Connecticut colony, was steeped in the culture of alchemy, which is to say, magic. In 2013, the historian Walter Woodward wrote a book about Winthrop’s vision and designs for America that is aptly titled Prospero’s America.

But once again, it gets complicated. Questions abound. Is Caliban really a “monster,” or is that just how Shakespeare/Prospero viewed an Indigenous person? What would happen if Caliban got his language back? And because Prospero leaves the island to Caliban in the final act, does that suggest Shakespeare’s enlightenment includes a streak of anti-colonialism? “It’s clear now,” Achokayis says hopefully. “Isn’t it?”

Where We Belong is a beautiful, thoughtful, and complex play, one that surely benefits from repeat viewings and/or a reading of the script, which is a scant 60 pages. And it recalled something M*A*S*H actor Larry Linville told me in an interview forever ago in the mid-1980s. It’s one of the few quotes that seared into my brain permanently at the moment of utterance. “The purpose of art,” he said, “is to irritate the hell out of people and make them think.”

In telling Sayet’s story, Where We Belong isn’t so much a compendium of inconvenient truths as it is of essential and even stimulating questions. Whether that irritates or offends surely depends on what the viewer brings to it, a reality that’s not lost on Sayet. “Most people don’t like talking about colonialism as much as they like talking about Shakespeare,” her alter-ego quips at one point.

That it’s intellectually dishonest, or at least inadequate, to talk about one while ignoring the other is a proposition that ought to make one think. In doing so, you may feel something, too.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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