In the center of a festival crowda young man stands up to perform. Lean and fit in a red t-shirt with three women standing shoulder to shoulder, he raises his voice to carry across a spiral garden and a round pool in a city park in Phoenix, Ariz.
Kenneth (Kenny) Ramos is Kumeyaay, and on this day, rising in the energy of the crowd he, is performing as an actor with Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles. His people live in southern Baja, California, and northern Mexico, and he grew up on the Barona Indian Reservation, in the chaparral, the canyons and oak forests above the desert. And he came to Phoenix on a spring morning to perform in Larissa FastHorse’s Native Nation, a work of theater that has grown from a community.
FastHorse is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and a nationally recognized playwright. She has just won a 2020 MacArthur Genius Grant in October, and this week she will bring her work to WAM Theatre in a virtual performance of the satirical comedy The Thanksgiving Play.
“She is a remarkable theatre artist,” said Talya Kingston, associate artistic director of WAM and director of the play.
From her childhood in South Dakota, FastHorse has grown to perform nationally and internationally as a Balanchine ballet dancer and on stage; she has moved into writing for film and television, and then forged into playwrighting with some of the most widely recognized theaters in the country, from the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis to the Kennedy Center.
In 2019 The Thanksgiving Play became one of the 10 most-produced plays in the U.S., and she became the first Native American playwright in the history of American theater on that list.
It’s comic, fast-paced, broad parody, Kingston said. A high school drama teacher, a professional actor, an amateur actor and yogi with an undisclosed day job and an elementary school history teacher meet to create a culturally sensitive play for children, honoring Thanksgiving and Native American History Month. And as the results spiral into revealing places they do not expect, FastHorse asks probing questions in satire.
“The best humor is when we’re able to laugh at ourselves,” Kingston said.
Creating theater with contemporary stories
This kind of performance and community performances like Native Nation move as currents in FastHorse’s work, and she draws them together. She creates theater in two worlds, she said in conversation with neurobiologist Erich Jarvis and the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst on October 19. She creates performances like The Thanksgiving Play for traditional Western theater spaces, and she creates work with and for Indigenous communities.
“The entire process of engaging with people and changing the way they view themselves and the way they view each other and the way they engage with each other is my art,” she said.
That process builds gradually, through conversations and shared meals and trust. In Native Nation it stretched across two years.
She and her director talked with hundreds of Indigenous people, she explained at the Creative Capital Artist Retreat in 2019. They asked, “what do you want people to know, how do you want them to know it, who should we tell this story to, where should we tell it, and how should it be told?”
She and the director would gather in these stories, and begin to shape them into a new whole and then come back to the people involved, over and again.
They would share conversations and experiences and dreams. She would talk with youth and elders, and entrepreneurs moving with ambition and activism — like OXDX, Jared Yazzie’s Diné-owned fashion label in Tempe, Arizona, with a mission “to preserve culture by passing on stories through art.”
At the end of two years of work, the actors performed in a vivid outdoor festival. More than 400 artists gathered outdoors in a space that became a stage and a marketplace, a place for ceremony and activism.
Comedians warmed the crowd. A rich scent rose of fresh dough turning golden in hot oil. In a mural painted by university students, five women stood together, figurative and abstract in the brilliant colors and patterns of woven cloth and a sunrise like a mosaic.
Diné artists set out vessels glazed in dark red, gold and dark green, like sunset over piñon, and a bracelet of beads of a marbled silvery and pearlescent mineral, howlite.
FastHorse has created this experience with the people of 22 nations in Arizona. And in 2019, she launched plans for the D/N/Lakota Project, to do this work in her childhood home, with her own people.
“A Lakota playwright will create a Lakota play with Lakota people on Lakota land,” she said, and her voice shook with the force of it.
Comedy and satire
And in 2019 her Thanksgiving Play toured more than 20 cities. FastHorse moves people to laughter, and Kingston feels her opening a conversation with generous insight.
FastHorse wrote the play in response to theaters that said they were not producing her plays because they could not cast them. They claimed they could not find Native actors, Kingston said. FastHorse argues that any theater will find many Native actors if they look.
But here she looks at four white people — four liberal, educated people.
Logan, the drama teacher, is vegan, environmentally conscious and ambitious. She has tried and failed to make it as an actor in L.A., and now she is standing up to a community where her reputation has crumbled. She has won grant funding to create a contemporary work, and she comes into the room thinking she has a historian for research and a Native professional actor to play the lead and bring her perspective.
Tom Truss plays Logan’s partner, Jaxton, a yoga ethnusiast who performs environmental monologs in the town park. Jaxton, he said, is the kind of guy who will bring his girlfriend a gift on the first day of rehearsal — and it will be a water bottle made from recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.
“Where did you find it?”
“At the farmers’ market. It’s symbolic of the way we’re going to create this play. We start with this pile of jagged facts and misguided government policies and historical stereotypes about race and then turn all that into something beautiful and dramatic and educational for the kids.”
“He’s an actor dude who does yoga,” Truss said, “and he is trying to make something of himself in that world, to be an evolved human being. … It becomes a sense of currency to him, this evolution.”
‘He’s an actor dude who does yoga, and he is trying to make something of himself in that world, to be an evolved human being. … It becomes a sense of currency to him, this evolution.’ — Tom Truss
And he sees an irony and humor in it, a pretense, that Jaxton will not see.
“He has a sense of power by being ‘powerless’,” Truss said. “… I’m going to allow everyone to be here at the table, and then (I’ll think) I’m a better person than other people, because you haven’t thought of it yet.”
He laughs and looks thoughtfully at the way Jaxton introduces himself to Caden, the historian, as an actor.
‘You get paid for your passions?’
‘I have a day job, but that’s not important to the story of me.’
“That’s a beautifully crafted line,” Truss said, “and it says so much about him, his evolution, the retreats and new-agey hoo-haw, which I do believe in, to some degree. He’s saying ‘I am doing what I wanted to do as a child.’”
Jaxton and Logan set out, with Caden, the historian, and Alicia, a Hollywood actor, to create a new work through devised theater and improvisation — a form Kingston finds deeply familiar and powerful when it is done well.
“With devised theater, you can only work with what’s in the room,” she said, “with people and objects … You prepare a room and the people to create the work.”
FastHorse knows this process intimately. She approaches theater like dance, she said at the Capital Artist Retreat; she will create each element in each work over and over again until all of the pieces come together.
“I’m always looking for the best idea in the room,” she said in that talk, “and how to make it perfect for these performers, this director, these collaborators.”
Devised theater can improvise and draw from the actors’ lived experience and their creative spontaneity, Truss and Kingston explain. At the same time, it grows from knowledge and a clear sense of the kinds of stories the actors want to tell.
‘With devised theater, you can only work with what’s in the room, with people and objects … You prepare a room and the people to create the work.’ — Talya Kingston
If Jaxton and Logan and their team wanted to create the roles of pilgrims in Plymouth in 1620, they would have to know the pilgrims’ lives, Kingston said.
They would have to know what was happening between Europeans and the nations on the coast and on the river called Cahohatatea, Muhhekunnetuk, the North River, the Mountain River … and would later be called the Hudson.
And they do not know, any more than they know the Wampanoag then, the people who met the travelers on the Mayflower on the coast. In the early 1600s, some 45,000 Wampanoag people were living in the lands along the shore, trading with Europeans, and more than two thirds of them would die in 1616 a yellow fever epidemic.
Caden knows that contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples on this continent is far more complex than one meeting in one time and place. When he tries to explain, Jaxton cuts him off: “Seriously man, you gotta loosen up about the facts.”
Logan and Jaxton have not done the research, Truss said, and they have not brought into the room the tools or the knowledge or the people who could teach them.
If they want to tell a contemporary story, they do not know the thousands of Wampanoag people living on the coast today, wrestling with the pandemic, voting in the election, teaching their language to their children, creating programs for oyster farming and conservation in the bay.
Jaxton and Logan haven’t prepared the room, Kingston said. And they begin to realize it.
They wrestle with the question, Truss said. They ask each other, “Is it ok for us to do this play in honor of Native people, because we’re white people. We thought we had someone (to speak with us from a Native perspective), and we don’t. Who can we speak for, if the people aren’t here?”
“(Then they argue) that they can speak for the school administration,” he said, “because they are all white. And they are not noticing the irony and the racist wrongness in that.”
As a scene like this one builds, he will often feel the humor and then the truth in it — and the pain in it.
“Logan (says) good drama is, at it’s core, truth,” Kingston said.
And the way these four characters look for truth, or don’t, will reveal truths about them.
In The Thanksgiving Play, FastHorse has brought into the room these four white people.
They bring their own knowledge and the limits of it, their attempts at connection and support, and their insecurities and their fears, Truss and Kingston said. Logan is trying to defend her job, and Jaxton is trying to assert himself over her project. Caden wants to see his plays performed. Alicia wants a leading role.
What they have brought into the room will reveal the stories they want to tell. And they are telling these stories to a new generation.
“… What they’re devising is a play for kids,” Kingston said, “and you really have to know what you want to teach.”
As Logan and Jaxton, Alicia and Caden struggle to create an honest new work, FastHorse cuts into the action with scenes drawn from real teacher’s Pinterest boards. Here are real elementary school lesson plans from teachers making hand-print turkeys and paper pilgrim hats. They are choosing how to talk about Thanksgiving with children.
They could root the holiday in the harvest, gathering with family, or the truth of the past, and the present, and the future.
But they are resigning Native peoples to a past tense, Kingston said. She finds these lessons sharp and painful. They are telling the story as though Native peoples have died and gifted white people with the country, she said.. And they do not see the story they are telling.
“This kind of mythology gets laid in very early,” Kingston said, “… rather than having any rich sense of the land from the beginning,” or a rich sense of the living cultures and the people around them.
‘This kind of mythology gets laid in very early … rather than having any rich sense of the land from the beginning.’ — Talya Kingston
FastHorse told her that whenever she brings a performance to a new place, she will invite the Native people who live there to come and to open the performance in any way they choose, and she will give the as much time as they need to do that.
So Kingston has reached out to Heather Bruegl, cultural affairs director of the Stockbridge Munsee band of the Mohican Nation. These mountains are their homeland, and they have just opened an office on Spring Street in Williamstown.
Kingston has invited her to open WAM’s virtual performances, and Bruegl will introduce the play with a recognition of the Mohican Nation’s living connection with the land and life in the Berkshires today.
“I hope this is the beginning of a respectful relationship we can build on,” Kingston said.
The play will benefit the Mohican Nation, and their museum and library, and the stories they choose to tell.