It's Time for Native American Stories to Make it to Broadway

It's Time for Native American Stories to Make it to Broadway

Chris Peterson

OnStage Editor-in-Chief

As a POC(Performer of Color), I celebrate anytime Broadway demonstrates inclusion whether it's with casting or show selection. However there is one group that is massively getting left out from this new wave of diversity awareness, Native Americans. 

This past year, the country rallied behind the Sioux tribes at Standing Rock to block the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The development would have driven pipelines right through the reservation. Thankfully, on Dec 4th, the project was temporarily halted. Unfortunately as of today(1/24/17), President Trump signed an executive action to force ahead with the pipeline.

But what was positive about all of this, was the swell of support for Native Americans and protecting their rights and heritage. It's more important than ever to keep up that momentum of support. One way we can certainly do that, is by bringing Native American stories and performers to Broadway. 

You might not know it but there had been a small legacy of Native American presence on Broadway during the part of the 20th Century. In 1908 a musical titled "The Red Moon" debuted on Broadway. The show told the story of a team of black Vaudeville performers tasked with saving a half-black, half-Native American woman named Minnehaha who had been kidnapped by her father. The show also toured nationally until 1910. Also the musical "Oklahoma" was based on the play "Green Grow the Lilacs" written by Lynn Riggs, who was part Cherokee.  

Recently, there have also been a number of plays that deal with Native American issues that have been produced in New York. For instance in 2015, the play “Informed Consent" premiered Off-Broadway. It told the story of the legal battle between the Havasupai, a Native American tribe based in the Grand Canyon, and Arizona State University. 

More recently there have been some Native American musicals written and performed but not given the green light for 42nd St.

In 2007, the musical "The Ghosts of Celilo" premiered at the Newmark Theatre in Portland, OR. The show tells the story of story of two Native-American boys kidnapped and taken to a government boarding school. There, they are befriended by the white daughter of the school’s administrator. The three make a daring escape to catch their ceremonial first salmon before Celilo Falls is buried by the closing of the Dalles Dam gates. This story is ‘remembered’ by four colorful ghosts who have been stuck at the bottom of the Columbia River for fifty years on the last remnants of fishing platforms that have been buried underwater where Celilo Falls once roared.  

In 2015, the musical "Distant Thunder", started making serious development jumps in hopes of making it to Broadway. The story follows attorney Darrell Walters, a mixed-race Native American who, as a child, was taken from the reservation by his white mother and raised in Chicago. Upon her death, he returns to the tribe to seek reconciliation with his father. Book is by mother/son duo Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Shaun Taylor-Corbett; music and lyrics by Chris Wiseman and Shaun Taylor-Corbett. With this project, Taylor-Corbett explores his paternal Blackfeet heritage.

So why hasn't there been a major Native American production on Broadway? Well to be honest, the business of Broadway and audiences' lack of knowledge when it comes to Native American culture, is what prevents these stories from coming to New York. 

Getting original stories to sell as a play or musical on Broadway is tougher than you think. While "Hamilton" and "Dear Evan Hansen" certainly have been successes, they also have big money backers to support them. What producer is going to take a million dollar risk on a musical about Native Americans, given Broadway audience trends in 2017? Sadly, not many. 

The road to get a Native American musical or play on Broadway is a long tough road. However there is plenty that we can do to help. 

First of all, we need to increase the level of education into Native American history. We also need greater education on our government's treatment of them as well. The more that is learned by our younger generations, the more ideas it can spark to foster material. 

We also need to encourage Broadway's best and brightest writers and composers to stop looking towards popular movies for inspiration and instead look into the vast, rich history of Native Americans as well as their folklore. 

In this era of awareness to bring more POC and Ethnic representation to Broadway stages, we need to make sure that we include Native Americans as well. The timing has never been better and the need has never been so great. 

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