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Native Actors Dramatize Works of Native American Writers

Staged readings happen all the time, but performances that feature 21st century Native American writing dramatized by Native American actors are rare. 

On September 22, two performances of CEDARS, a staged reading of poems and texts by Native American writers, were held in the Streep Auditorium on campus. The production— which was sponsored by the Native American Studies correlate, and the American Culture and Drama departments—explored the struggles of American Indians to both celebrate their cultural heritage and negotiate 21st century urban settings.

The production included the work of Molly McGlennen, assistant professor of English at Vassar, who is of Anishinaabe descent. The professional actors, who spent two weeks on campus as part of a residency program, included Jake Hart (Blackfeet/Cherokee), Larissa Laurel (Apache/Aztec), Johnny Patchamatla (Chippewa/White Earth and East Indian), William Michael Paul (Hunkpapa Sioux), and Madeline Sayet (Mohegan). 

Cedars' cast: William Michael Paul, Jake Hart, Larissa Laurel, Johnny Patchamatla, and Madeline Sayet.

Conceived and adapted for the stage by local director June Prager, artistic director of Mirage Theater Company, the production had its original two-week run in Seattle in 2002. Only Patchamatla and Paul, who live and work in the Seattle area, had been part of that original production. "I wanted to feel how these words felt after 10 years and to bring them, renewed, to a new audience and hopefully give the work another shot at getting fully produced," says Patchamatla of his second run in the play. "I do believe that these are stories that need to be told and, even more importantly, need to be heard."

Hart says it’s not often you see productions about 21st century Native American life. Hart has been acting professionally since 2001 and has been involved in numerous theater, film, and television projects. He has taught at the University of Colorado, Ohio Northern, Dartmouth, Cornish College of the Arts, and Red Eagle Soaring Native Theater. Still, he says, “[CEDARS] is unique in that it gives a lot of contemporary voices to Native Americans, living voices, voices of today. And that is what separates it from a lot of theater we get to produce as Native Americans. We’re working on it—that’s changing. But this is still a relatively new genre for the world of popular theater.”

“We are so strongly present in [American] culture in a very specific way—as in the past,” says Sayet. As a result, she says, contemporary Native American voices have been largely absent from the world of popular theater. Productions like CEDARS are part of an effort to include Native American voices in popular theater by developing the genre of contemporary Native American theater.

Sayet, who received a BFA in acting and an MFA in art politics and post-colonial theory at NYU, says people of Native descent frequently confront misconceptions about American Indians.

“American people feel like they’re generally well-educated about [Native Americans]. So then to discover that there is not a ‘Native American’ that speaks one language, has one type of song, looks one way, is very surprising,” says Sayet.

She notes the tensions between perceived images of Native Americans and how people of Native descent actually look. “The American Indian is one of those things that because everyone has such a fixed image in their minds of what that is via television, film, and movies, it’s very difficult for them to recognize it in reality,” she says.

The cast enjoyed doing their part to explore themes of identity, ethnicity, and community through the production—and to further demystify Native culture. “It’s important for new Native work to be promoted in a way that puts us in a contemporary world on the stage,” Hart says.

Like the process of dismantling stereotypes, CEDARS is certainly a work in progress—the production has evolved as new actors have taken the roles and new texts have been added—yet, a commitment to promoting dialogue through artistry has remained central.

Prager hopes to take the production to New York City sometime in the next few years.

--Marlena Santos ’14