The Need for More Native American Theatre

Larissa FastHorse’s “Urban Rez” at Cornerstone Theater Company.

Larissa FastHorse’s “Urban Rez” at Cornerstone Theater Company.

Aaron Netsky

Many years ago, before the history recorded in southern text books, Manhattan, including the theatre district, was inhabited by an indigenous tribe known as the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people. There may still be some living in Manhattan (and there's the National Museum of the American Indian in the Financial District), but they have been largely absent from the theatre district for, shall we say, more than two hundred years. Oh, sure, there have been rumored sightings, but would we really call characters in musicals like "Peter Pan" and "Annie Get Your Gun" true Native Americans? I've been in both, and I would say no, though perhaps that is not my call because neither am I. Is the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe mentioned in "Hamilton"? I guess maybe that history had already happened in Manhattan (I haven't seen it, tickets are so hard to come by, so I don't really know, but I don't recall any mention of them on the cast recording).

I have been trying to be better about learning about Native American culture and stories, and one of the primary ways I learn about anything is reading. I finally had the chance to read "Seventh Generation: An Anthology of Native American Plays”. And what did I learn? Native American culture is alive and vibrant in theatre. Unfortunately, it is also almost invisible.

Seventh Generation.jpg

This book was published in 1999, and the plays included are, as might be expected, older, but the seven very different plays represented, and the bodies of work by each author that they represent, definitely suggest that not only are there theatre scenes in Native communities, but they are ready for the big time. As with any handful of plays, there were some here that I could read and get into without any trouble ("The Independence of Eddie Rose," "Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth") and some that I felt I would do better with if I saw them performed ("The Woman Who Was a Red Deer Dressed for the Deer Dance," "The Story of Susanna"). When I have trouble with reading a play, it is more to do with style than not being the same ethnicity as the writer. Indeed, the two that I mention having had no trouble understanding would fit right in among the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I've often wondered how a musical about Native Americans would be, and usually picture something along the lines of what I've seen in historical dramas about the one white person who finds themselves among the natives. I should have just imagined "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur" with Native American characters and themes. 

"Indian Radio Days," by Leanne Howe and Roxy Gordon, was probably my favorite. Set up as a radio play, it goes, rapidly, through Native American history, poking poignant fun at episodes involving white people (let's call them immigrants), including certain celebrities who have been in movies about Native Americans. Sound effects and music and performers acting as narrators and announcers keep the tone light, as do parody commercials. It would be a lot of fun to experience on stage, and is in many ways about how Native Americans got to where they are today. "Eddie Rose," by William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., and "Only Drunks," by Drew Hayden Taylor, as well as "Body Indian," by Hanay Geiogamah, are about contemporary life for Native Americans (not the most up to date, but still) on and off reservations, and it is not shown to be ideal. The plays depict alcoholism and domestic abuse. "Only Drunks" explores the idea of embracing one's identity as a Native American having been unceremoniously, but "legally," taken from one's birth mother and adopted by a white family when the birth mother was deemed unfit because of problems related to generations of treatment by the white people making the "legal" judgement as to her fitness as a parent. If that sentence seems convoluted, it accurately represents its content.

And I'm sure there are also positive stories about Native Americans to tell on stage, though what is drama without...well, drama. The point is, I have seen many, many, many plays and musicals, on Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off Broadway, at regional theatres, and in high schools and middle schools, and I cannot recall any of them being about Native Americans, even when some of the characters were, supposedly, Native Americans. Some of the plays in this book have gotten New York workshops, but have not progressed past that point in this city, to my knowledge. I did hear about one promising musical, "Indian Joe," that a friend stage managed at Goodspeed a few years ago, and I hear whispers here and there of Native American-themed projects, but rarely do I hear that they are getting big openings anywhere.

Our culture is making a lot of progress in a lot of different directions, but telling Native American stories on the scale that we tell other kinds of stories is still a huge hole. Since theatre exists in two forms, written and staged, evidence of the existence of Native American theatre is there, piling up, in written form, waiting for its audiences. This audience member, for one, is tired of waiting for them to get their big chance, and if that's how I feel, imagine how they do.




Aaron Netsky (@AaronNetsky on Twitter) is a singer, writer, actor, and all-around theatre professional who has worked off and off-off Broadway and had writing published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, Slate.com, StageLightMagazine.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com, as well as his own blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and his Medium account. He is currently the Production Assistant for the off-Broadway production of "Kennedy: Bobby's Last Crusade" at the Theatre at St. Clements, which runs through December 9th. Bring in a new, unwrapped toy worth ten dollars or more and get two tickets for the price of one.