A 10-minute play by Navajo playwright Rhiana Yazzie was at the center of a controversy within the local Native American community. The play focuses on two fictional characters in 1968 – the year that the American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded – and several real-life people are mentioned, including AIM co-founder Clyde Bellecourt.
The History Theatre premiered "1968: The Year That Rocked The World" on January 21 at Minnesota History Center’s 3M Auditorium. The theater commissioned seven playwrights from the Playwrights’ Center, including Rhiana Yazzie, to write plays focusing on the events.
Yazzie’s play, The Corral, takes place during the time when AIM was just beginning in Minneapolis. It is titled after a bar on Franklin Avenue frequented by American Indian people at the time; the bar was the site of much police brutality during that time period.
Yazzie was commissioned to write two plays. The first play Yazzie wrote didn’t focus on AIM. Yazzie said that History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso asked her to write a second play that focused more on AIM. He had suggested that Clyde Bellecourt, one of the founders of AIM, could a character, Yazzie said.
Yazzie said she never wanted Bellecourt to be a character. Peluso suggested that Yazzie interview Bellecourt, which at first she didn’t want to do. In the end she agreed to interview Bellecourt.
"They interviewed me for three solid hours," Bellecourt said. Afterwards, Peluso promised that they would bring the script back to him, but that never happened, according to Bellecourt.
In a draft of the play one of the characters, Moon, calls out for help because he and the other character are handcuffed to a light pole by the police and left there – Yazzie said it is based on a real incident that happened in 1971. Moon calls out for Bellecourt, calling him "Belly Court."
According to Bellecourt, his objections to the play stem from the fact that it doesn’t talk about the great things that the AIM movement accomplished. "It makes jokes about me and my brother," he said. The play, he said, "doesn’t talk about hope, or about all of the accomplishments of the movement." He also didn’t like that the two characters "talked like they are drunk," and also used foul language.
According to Yazzie, neither of the characters are drunk. One had been in the bar trying to make some money, and the other was looking for a television.
Two weeks before the play was to open, there were numerous discussions and confrontations involving Yazzie, Bellecourt, and other members of the community and people from the theater. "Clyde came into rehearsal on Tuesday night with four other people and said to the entire cast, ‘We’re here to shut this play down,’" Yazzie said.
Yazzie was told by Pat Bellanger, another AIM member, to sit down with Laura Waterman Wittstock, a writer who she was told "has some really good ideas about making it a more positive script," according to Yazzie. Making changes to the character or story were not things that Yazzie was willing to do. "Why don’t you have Laura write a play?" Yazzie said, calling the suggestion that she change her script "outrageous."
Beyond issues with the "Belly Court" moniker and some obscene language, Bellecourt said that he objects to not having been given approval of the script, which he said Peluso had promised. "I told him, ‘You made this promise that you never fulfilled. You’re just another white man with a fork-toothed tongue.’" Bellecourt said.
In response to Bellecourt’s threat of a protest, Yazzie sent out a mass e- mail to friends and colleagues. "I write to you with a plea for help," she wrote. "My First Amendment Rights are being violated and I am being threatened by Clyde Bellecourt and his trademark of the American Indian Movement."
According to Yazzie, Bellecourt threatened to protest the play unless it was either pulled or she rewrote it- – not just sentences and historical references, but entire characters and situations. The letter was also posted on a new facebook group, called "Bully Court’s AIM Censors 1st Amendment."
On January 12, the History Theatre made the decision to pull the play, substituting instead Yazzie’s other play about the same time period, according to Yazzie.
Yazzie said she considered the incident "an assault to my artwork."
By that weekend, Bellecourt had a change of heart, and had agreed to meet with Yazzie. They both met with Peluso at the History Theatre. Yazzie had agreed to make some minor changes to the script, and Bellecourt said he would take them back to the AIM Grand Governing Council and other community leaders, Yazzie said.
At rehearsal on the Monday before the play opened, Peluso asked Yazzie to make an additional change to the script. He first asked her to remove the reference to "Belly Court" completely – which she had offered to do when the controversy arose originally – and then suggested a change making explicitly clear that the name was a joke. Finally, Yazzie told Peluso that she wasn’t going to change anything else. "If you want to change my script, go for it. You have my permission," Yazzie told him. "I’m done fighting for the peanuts that I have left in my artistic integrity," she said.
"I’m disappointed by how everything unfolded," said Yazzie. "I’m upset by Clyde’s bullying. No other writer would have to put up with that."
Yazzie said she is baffled by the objections. "This play is so pro-AIM and so pro-Indian," she said. "The fact that Clyde is even protesting it shows there’s a deeper vanity or vendetta or personal hurt that he was going after."
In the end, Bellecourt and AIM decided against a protest, and allowed the History Theatre to use the AIM logo. Bellecourt was satisfied with the changes to the script, he said, and didn’t want the American Indian actors in the show to lose their pay. In addition, a two-page history of the AIM movement was distributed by the ushers, according to Bellecourt.
Peluso spoke about the controversy, but agreed to be quoted saying only that "we will be doing Rhiana’s play. We all found common ground and I appreciate that all involved were able to reconcile our differences."
The play runs through February 19.