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In this day and age, most savvy audiences have an idea what the Native American experience is not. It is not wearing feathers and beads as a fashion statement. It does not speak in stoic monosyllables. It bears little to no resemblance to sports mascots or familiar portrayals in television, film or popular art.
But understanding what the Native American experience is is a far more complex undertaking, given that there are over 500 nations in North America, each with its own unique history and culture.
Bringing contemporary Native perspectives to life onstage is the mission of Native Voices at the Autry, the only Equity theater company in the U.S. devoted to developing and presenting the work of Native American playwrights. By partnering beginning, emerging and established Native artists with experienced directors, dramaturgs and actors, Native Voices has been fostering the development of Native playwrights since 1994, and they have been presenting Native works at La Jolla Playhouse since 2008.
Chula Vista residents Jean Bruce Scott and Randy Reinholz (Choctaw) founded Native Voices, which became the resident theater company of the Autry National Center of the American West in 1999, because they felt strongly that the Native story had not yet been told by Native people.
“Seeing how Native Americans are making their way in the world now is really important to us,” said Scott, who serves as producing executive director of Native Voices. “And the work itself – the plays are so exciting. They’re stories we haven’t heard about America from a different perspective.”
Under the leadership of Scott and Reinholz, the producing artistic director who is also director of community engagement and innovative programs at San Diego State University, Native Voices has produced 22 new plays,19 new play festivals and more than 150 workshops and staged readings of new works written and performed by Native American artists. Plays developed under the auspices of Native Voices have gone on to successful runs at internationally renowned theaters and festivals including The Public Theater, Montana Repertory Theater and The Origins Festival in London.
This weekend, Native Voices at the Autry will be presenting three new works at La Jolla Playhouse as part of their Playwrights Retreat and Festival of New Plays.
“La Jolla Playhouse’s support and advocacy for this work is invaluable,” said Scott. “In addition to getting Native plays onstage in front of a new audience, their artists have served as dramaturgs for our retreats and festivals, and they’ve commissioned works by Native playwrights. We love being at La Jolla Playhouse; it’s been a very productive, fruitful relationship.”
The plays that will be presented were written by playwrights with varying degrees of experience, which Scott says is deliberate.
“We discovered early on that everybody learns from everybody else, even the old hands,” she said. “Though there were some things about “The Healer’s Remains” [by Lori Favela (Yankton Sioux)] that marked it as her first play, it stands on its own with the more experienced playwrights’ scripts. It features a nice mix of characters and a setting we haven’t seen before. It was obvious that Lori had a playwright’s sensitivity; she gets the voices and other things that are very difficult to teach. The play works on so many different levels.”
Favela’s play tells the story of a young woman working in her reservation’s nursing home facing the specter of her father’s mysterious death.
Veteran Canadian actor and award-winning playwright Darrell Dennis (Shuswap), whose script for “Moccasin Flats” was selected for the Sundance Film Festival and developed into a television series, contributes “Where Have All the Warriors Gone?” to the festival, the story of four men connected to a murdered woman and coming to terms with their roles in how she died. Scott says that as an audience member, one can’t help but ask what you’d do in each man’s place.
“Stand-off at HWY #37,” by Public Theater Emerging Writer’s Group alumna Vicky Ramirez (Tuscarora, Six Nations of the Grand River), focuses on a young soldier whose professional and cultural worlds collide when law enforcement clashes with those protesting a highway through a reservation in New York.
“When we were rehearsing ‘Stand-off,’ one of the actors was moved shared stories about her son fighting in Iraq,” said Scott. “This story of a soldier in a moment of crisis is going to resonate, particularly with military families.”
Beyond presenting new and exciting talent, Scott hopes that audiences will see themselves in the stories presented onstage rather than the differences in perspective.
“One of the museums where we performed a play did an exit survey asking audiences what they thought about Native Americans, and most of the people responded, ‘They’re extinct.’ That’s why the stories are so important, because the people and their stories aren’t extinct. There are over 100,000 Native Americans in Southern California. The person sitting next to you could be Native American. They have the same wants, needs and desires that anybody does.”
By fostering nuanced, detailed depictions of Native characters and stories, Native Voices offers audiences new ways to experience Native Americans’ strong connection to their traditions and culture.
La Jolla Playhouse presents public readings of the three plays selected for Native Voices at the Autry’s Festival of New Plays on Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2. Though the performances are free, seating is very limited, and reservations are recommended.