New Native Theatre is Native-centered theater

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From left to right: Raymond Niu, Alicia Garcia, Christina Woods, Yvette Nolan, Lyz Jaakola, Alicia Smith, and Joshua Simpson. (Photo by Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra.)

By Brad Hagen

For the majority of United States history, narratives involving the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island have been controlled and created by non-Indigenous people, especially those found on stage and the big screen. As a result, there has been a great deal of misrepresentation and a proliferation of stereotypes when it comes to who we are and what is important to us. Think “What Made the Red Man Red” from Peter Pan; Think the “Indian Princess” stereotype from Pocahontas; Think the tear rolling down Iron Eyes Cody’s cheek in that anti-littering commercial. This is the legacy we’re up against, though luckily there are organizations like New Native Theatre who are providing a platform for Natives to tell their own stories.

New Native Theatre (NNT) was founded in 2009 by playwright Rhiana Yazzie (Navajo) in response to a lack of Native-centered theater in Minneapolis. Having moved to Minneapolis in 2006 on the Jerome Fellowship (a national playwriting award), Yazzie wanted to work with the local Native theatre company. “There’s over 100 theatre companies in town [Minneapolis], and it’s also one of the most vibrant urban Native communities in the country, but there wasn’t one. I thought, ‘This is crazy. Just a mile down the road is the Indian Center. How come there are no Native people doing theatre?’ So that’s why I started the theatre company.”

(Photo courtesy the NNT website.)

Yazzie cited the theatre system itself as a contributing factor for why there was a lack of Indigenous people participating in theatre. “We have these amazing dancers and singers, and all these folks who could have done theatre, but there just wasn’t a mechanism for them to get into theatre that made them feel safe, because I think if theatre was safe and inviting, how come Native people weren’t actively involved in those hundreds of theatres? The whole structure of white American theatre is steeped in white supremacy, which you can understand why Native people are kind of like, no thanks.

“Here in the US, if you see something on a predominantly white institution stage, most, if not all the time, that was curated and chosen by that white institution. And it’s a really different experience when a white curator is picking Native work, because they’re picking it for their white audiences, whereas Native theatre companies have this kind of mission to center Native artists and audiences. The things we do at NNT are always focused on the Native audience first. That’s not to say we don’t want a non-Native audience, but I’ve found that great work is created when you don’t worry about trying to reach non-Native audiences. At the end of the day, if the play is a good play, it’ll be about uncovering the human experience.

Yazzie continued, “I mean, there’ll be cultural nuances for sure, and yeah, non-Natives will have to catch up some with some of the lingo and colloquialisms, but for the most part, we’ve all had to do that when stepping into a white museum, right? Most of us don’t know what cubism and surrealism is when stepping into those spaces, so we look it up. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that of people.”

NNT’s upcoming production is The Unplugging by respected playwright Yvette Nolan (Algonquin). This post-apocalyptic play is set in a world where electricity has stopped flowing, rendering modern technology useless, and follows two women who have been exiled from their community because they are no longer of child-bearing age. It’s a story of returning to traditional ways and remembering ancestral knowledge.

Yazzie stated that this play, like most of the work they produce, has a healing component to it. “Native people never get to see other Native people on stage. We never get to see our stories reflected back. And usually, Native stories are always centering characters that mainstream America doesn’t like, like for instance, two older women.”

The play will be performed on the old Migizi communications grounds, which burned down during the George Floyd protests last summer, an intentional choice that Yazzie says also fosters a sense of healing. “Producing the play in that space is going to be a healing and celebratory act. It’s been a year and a half since we’ve been able to get together and do theatre, so it’ll be a time to finally come back and be in community.”

Leading up to the production, NNT has been hosting a summer workshop series focused on food sovereignty and indigenous cultural lifeways such as wild rice harvesting, fish skin tanning, and indigenous gardening practices, and even auntie life-hacks.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, NNT is taking measures to ensure the safety of everyone present at the performance. As such, the play will be held outdoors and attendance will be capped at thirty people per showing. Tickets prices are “pay what you can” with a suggested price of $30. “We do that to ensure that Native audiences always have access and can see the show,” Yazzie stated.

Tickets are pay-what-you-can with the suggested price of $35. Audiences can buy tickets at https://unplugging.brownpapertickets.com.

For questions and ticket info, email boxoffice@newnativetheatre.org. The Unplugging will run everyday from September 9th to September 19th at 2:00pm.

For more information on NNT, The Unplugging, and tickets, visit: https://newnativetheatre.org.