We are thrilled to kick off #IdentityWeek with a feature on the very idea that prompted this year's panel event: the discussion around playwrights and their identity. Do they have a responsibility to write for their cultural, ethnic, sexual or religious background? If they do, are playwrights labeled as writers for that particular group? Tonight's (9 /27/16) panel, Playwrights & Their Identity, will focus on the impact and influence of a playwright's perceived identity on their writing and within our theatre community. Larissa FastHorse pens the first piece of our #IdentityWeek series, discussing her experience as a Native American playwright as well the ever-evolving conversation around Native American, Asian American, and Latinx groups in the theatre—and the essential need for their representation on our stages. —Courtney Kochuba, #Identity Week curator, Samuel French
I’ve written and spoken a lot about being a Native American playwright. You can find my talk during the 2011 TCG National Conference about what it means to be “exotic” in theatre here. Or my previous HowlRound post on common issues writers of color face in the business here. Or my TCG Circle blog to non-Indigenous writers that want to tell Indigenous stories here. Unfortunately, an issue that just won’t go away for me is casting. In fact, it is getting worse, but not in ways I expected.
I like writing Indigenous characters. I also like that America is finally interested in seeing those characters’ stories on stage. Through theatre I get to be an educator, activist, and community builder. Eyes are opened, houses sell out, they laugh, they cry, and lives are changed. But all of that good stuff only happens when the theatre produces my play.
I am equally thrilled that Asian American groups and Latinx groups have fought against yellow/brown face this past year, and feel empowered and good about that fight. I’m also proud of you, American theatre, for listening and changing. But I’m getting nervous about the tenor of the talk around these issues when I read social media and attend town halls. All people of color are being put together behind one hard line. I love solidarity, but I also love our differences. And these communities are in very different places right now.
A quick Google search shows that there are about ten times as many Latinx folks in this country as Native Americans and three times as many Asian folks, if we lump them all together, which is problematic in itself. Much of the Native American population is spread over highly isolated areas with very little (if any) access to Western style theatre. Logically, the number of Western trained, experienced Native American actors is small. Don’t start sending me angry comments already. I know many Native American actors do exist and are excellent artists, but in relationship to other minority populations, our numbers are naturally smaller.
I recently had a university workshop production of my play What Would Crazy Horse Do? at Santa Clara University, directed by Courtney Elkin Mohler. The choosing of this play was especially brave on Courtney’s part. She knew when she approached me that there are two Native American roles, and she didn’t have any Native American actors in their theatre program—a common statistic for universities. My choice was to either let them do the play with non-Native actors, or not do the play. Courtney’s plan was to make it clear from the beginning that these actors were not Indigenous, but the message was more important than the casting. I agreed immediately. SCU arranged to have me spend time in residence with the cast and it went very well. Eyes were opened, houses sold out, lives changed, etc. You can hear an extended analysis of the project on the Stinky Lulu Says podcast, Episode 6.
The current talk around casting is making me nervous because I hear again and again that doing a production like the one we did at Santa Clara University was “wrong.” Under no circumstances should people play outside of their ethnicities. It’s becoming very black and white (pardon the pun), but the reality for me is many shades of grey. When I see productions (even community theatre!) vilified on social media for casting someone other than the specified race of the character, I can hear my scripts dropping into recycle bins in small towns and universities across the country. These are places that, thanks to a history of removal and genocide that I’d love to tell you about on stage, no longer have Indigenous populations and certainly no Indigenous actors. These are exactly the places that need to hear those stories, but I completely understand their fear. I was nervous through the entire Santa Clara production that someone would call them out and close the door on the next Indigenous playwright they were thinking of producing. Fortunately, that did not happen.
Let me be clear for those of you that didn’t click on all of my previous talks, I am one hundred percent behind casting the proper ethnicity when possible. I push theatres hard to bring in Indigenous actors when they can afford it, or identify and give a chance to Indigenous actors in their communities. But when that is not a possibility, I would rather get the stories out there to give non-Indigenous people the chance to learn about us, and to show Indigenous people that there is a place for them in theatre. As the playwright, that is my right. My choice. Other playwrights make different choices. I know we all mean well with the push for color consciousness in casting, but let’s be specific when we talk about it. Discuss each production, each city, each role, and then respect the choice that each playwright makes.
Eric Rosen of Kansas City Rep recently said, “The seasons we program in our theatres have the power to show audiences what they should care about.” I’ll get specific here; I want every person in the United States of America to care about Native American stories. We are a small part of the population, but we have survived a massive military and policy effort to eradicate us. If our stories aren’t heard here on our land, who will hear them?