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Indigenous Theatre Reclaims the Center at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater

Then head up this way to the Minneapolis American Indian Center and the current center of the Center. Rather, here, where we are gathered. 
–Robert Dakota, For the People

The word “center” carries significance, obviously. It is good to be in the “center” of things. If someone takes “center stage,” they assume a space of importance and value; they are seen. 

For six decades, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has occupied a myriad of cultural “centers”: a historic center of the regional theatre movement, an artistic center for professional theatre in the Midwest, and an erudite center for European “classics” (Shakespeare, the Greeks, Moliere, etc.). Indeed, I came of age on a fertile shelf of wind-swept prairie called North Dakota, nowhere near my perceived center of anything. Word on the plains was that if you wanted to witness Shakespeare done well, you must make the five-hundred-mile journey to the Guthrie Theater. In my first year of college, I witnessed a brilliant, anachronistic production of Hamlet directed by Garland Wright on that original, iconic thrust stage. An eight-hour drive to the center changed my life. From that day forward, I recognized my vocation in the theatre. 

For the first time in its sixty-year history, the “center” of the Guthrie Theater symbolically shifted.

The notion of center differs between cultures. In his essay “The Roots of Renewal” in Seeing with Native Eyes, Joseph Epes Brown recounts a Native American understanding of spatial relationships, particularly the concept of the “center.” In Brown's explanation, a “ritually defined center” transcends a basic understanding of “circumference” or “where a persona stands.” Brown elaborates:

It is also taken to be the actual center of the world. It is understood as an axis serving as a bridge… an axis that pierces through a multiplicity of worlds…. It symbolizes the way of liberation from the limits of the cosmos. Always, vertical ascent is impossible unless the starting point be the ritual center. 

Through this Native perspective, the “ritual center” is more than a fixed point in the exact midpoint of a ring. It is the symbolic center of and passageway to creation.

For the first time in its sixty-year history, the “center” of the Guthrie Theater symbolically shifted. From 7 October through 12 November 2023, a play co-written by two Native American playwrights was performed on one of the Guthrie’s mainstage theaters (center stage). Of course, if we truly embrace the message of the now standard land acknowledgments publicly shared before theatre productions, Indigenous peoples already held this center. In a monumental moment of inclusion, the Guthrie Theater finally officially, symbolically, and tangibly acknowledged this fact. Through their satirical comedy For the PeopleTy Defoe and Larissa FastHorse “pierced through a multiplicity of worlds” and reclaimed the ritual center of a premier regional theatre.

An actor takes a sock off of an actor laying down in a classroom set.

Nathaniel TwoBears, Katie Anvil Rich and Wes Studi in For the People by Ty Defoe and Larissa Fasthorse at the Guthrie Theatre. Directed by Michael John Garcés. Scenic design by Tanya Orellana. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Emma Deane. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle.

The Separation Stage

In Rites of Passage, Arnold van Gennep identifies a three-stage structure of ritual that consists of separation, liminality, and incorporation. To highlight the way that For the People’s performance at the Guithrie constitutes an important rite of passage for Native drama, I have structured the remainder of this essay around van Gennep’s three stages. Like many rites of passage, this journey to the ritual center required preparation. As far back as 2010, the Guthrie Theater produced an Marsha Norman’s adaptation of The Master Butchers Singers Club, an acclaimed novel written by Native author, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Minneapolis resident Louise Erdrich. While a revered theatre artist in her own right, Norman is not Native American. Defoe and FastHorse first collaborated with the Guthrie in 2017 on Water Is Sacred, and they returned in 2019 with From the Drum. As outlined in the program notes, these shorter, developmental works paved the way, along with a grant from the Joyce Foundation, for the Guthrie Theater to commission the Native playwriting duo to create a longer “theatre project.” Work began in 2019 on a new play devised in collaboration with the Twin Cities Native community. Four years of workshops, story circles, and additional grants later, the Guthrie Theater officially announced For the People as part of the 2023-2024 mainstage season. Rehearsals began in September. 

Centering rituals pervaded the rehearsal preparation. In an Instagram post from 11 September 2023, FastHorse extolled the Guthrie’s management for their attempts to “Indigenize space and process.” FastHorse explained:

When Ty Defoe and I walked into the Guthrie Theater for the first day of rehearsal, it was full of local Native women. These women were cast members, our assistant director, and two elders who had been invited to start us in a right way instead of the usual first-day presentations. All of which was arranged by Blossom Johnson who is the Community Engagement Associate here. 

Further expressing her appreciation, FastHorse continued, “the rehearsal room was arranged in a circle and the first person to speak was not the artistic director or creatives on the show,” but “a Dakota elder, because we are on their lands.” Additional rehearsal preparations included an elder smudging the ensemble while another made prayer ties and “other plant medicines” available to everyone who shared the rehearsal space. 

An actor in a denim jacket stands center, speaking to a group of seated actors.

Adrienne Zimiga-January, Sheri Foster Blake, Wes Studi, Ernest Briggs and Katie Anvil Rich in For the People by Ty Defoe and Larissa Fasthorse at the Guthrie Theatre. Directed by Michael John Garcés. Scenic design by Tanya Orellana. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Emma Deane. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle.

The centering process even inspired visual modifications to a deeply established performance venue. The interior design of the Guthrie Theater includes a series of glass-covered, backlit production photos illuminated from within the deep purple interior walls of the complex. When I visit, I routinely seek out an image from the 1988 production of Hamlet that changed my life, a young Julianne Moore as Ophelia staring back at meBut for For the People, a horizontal line of polymer panels conspicuously covered production photos that permanently line the outer wall of the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Each hand-painted square contained a single letter or numeral adorned by various Native-themed backgrounds. It took me a while to realize that the symbols running down the narrow lobby hallway combined to spell, “NEVER HOMELESS BEFORE 1492.” An inconspicuous museum label revealed that this artwork by Cortney Cochran (Anishinaabe) was originally installed on Franklin Avenue in 2018 beside one of Minnesota’s largest encampments of unhoused residents. Moved 1.3 miles from its original home to the Guthrie Theater on the bank of the Mississippi River (Ojibway for “great river), Cochran’s darkly comic art installation formed an environmental theatre threshold through which audience members must pass in order to enter the McGuire Proscenium Stage.

Once I was through the threshold, Tanya Orellana’s large and colorful scenic design immediately demanded attention. For The People takes place in a recently built community center on the aforementioned Franklin Avenue, a locus for the urban Native American community in Minneapolis. In addition to the now familiar axiom, “Never homeless before 1492,” the phrase “For the People” decorated the purple walls of the center, written in Dakota, Anishinaabe, and EnglishIn her Instagram post, FastHorse revealed that “Orellana commissioned two local Native artists to adorn her set with murals.” The maximalist visuals of the entire design radiantly foreshadowed the well-meaning if overabundant enthusiasm of the play’s protagonist. Brightly-colored exercise balls, one even modified to look like a turtle, doubled as chairs for the community center visitors, hinting at the comedy to come.

While the multicolored murals added vibrancy and authenticity to mise-en-scène, other senses also received attention. Resident sound designer Victor Zupanc collaborated with Talon Bazille Ducheneaux (Cheyenne River Sioux, Lakota, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and Dakota) to score the auditory space with Indigenous-inspired music. Perhaps the most surprising (and amazing) design element appealed to olfactory sensations. Shortly before the lights dimmed, the unmistakable smell of burning sweet grass wafted through the audience. The Ojibway and other tribes often burn sweet grass to solicit positive energies at the start of important ceremonies. Whether we knew it or not, the large, mostly white audience participated in ritual designed to prepare us to enter into a state of transition or liminality.

In the tradition of magic realism present in Indigenous literature across the Western Hemisphere, the miraculous seeds grow overnight into an “extinct garden.” The past saves the present.

The Liminal Stage

Guided by Michael John Garcés’s skilled direction, the plot of For the People unfolded at a bouncy pace. The opening moments introduce April Dakota (Katie Anvil Rich, Cherokee and Chickasaw Descent), a young Native woman who grew up in Minneapolis, left for college and travel, but who has returned home to manage an American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue. Her wealthy father, Casino owner Robert Dakota (Kalani Queypo, Native Hawaiian and Blackfeet Descent) built the impressive facility for his daughter to run, but its final commission requires the approval of an eccentric, argumentative, and delightfully inefficient task force consisting of elders and community activists. April’s well-meaning if naïve attempts to gain the task force’s approval serve as the catalyst for the themes within the play.

In an interview in American Theatre, Defoe maintained that “working with the community in the Twin Cities has been a key part of the source material.” As expressed through passionate conversations and arguments, these community-derived themes include battles over identity (“Rez Indian” vs. “Urban Indian”), the definition of a “tribe,” the complicated question of how history is constructed and shared, and the overriding theme of gentrification (“Uptowning” vs “un-towning”). Not surprisingly, the script brims with local references. Examples include quips against the trendy Uptown neighborhood, a reference to Louis Erdrich’s Birchbark Bookstore located in the Uptown neighborhood, sweet corn pancakes at Maria’s Café on Franklin Avenue, and a brief reference to the now eleven-year-old artistic blunder by Walker Arts Center’s commissioning of Scaffold, a stunningly tone-deaf installation in which a white artist reconstructed the gallows used to hang thirty-eight Dakota men in 1862 in a community sculpture garden.

An actor pulls a silly face while another looks bemused in the background.

Kalani Queypo and Katie Anvil Rich in For the People by Ty Defoe and Larissa Fasthorse at the Guthrie Theatre. Directed by Michael John Garcés. Scenic design by Tanya Orellana. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Emma Deane. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle.

Such serious themes could easily turn maudlin, but not in the hands of these playwrights. In the American Theatre interview, FastHorse described a clear directive of the Native community: “They told us they wanted to be seen with laughter and humor. That was a really consistent request, that this show was meant to be about Native joy.” Those familiar with The Thanksgiving Play know FastHorse’s penchant for affectionately satirizing well-meaning characters who take themselves too seriously. Hilarious examples of this trait include April Dakota’s quest to “decolonize physical fitness” by replacing traditional yoga poses with Indigenous versions, including visually ridiculous “tipi” and “prairie dog” poses. In another hilarious example, a desperate Robert Dakota lobbies the task force to build a self-serving “statue-fountain-sculpture thing” to promote his struggling casino. Trying to exploit Native history with contemporary mores, Robert blatantly pitches, “How about the story in the spring of 2006, when a non-binary Native child was rescued from bullies on this spot by a modern-day warrior who recalled the old ways and stood against the colonist’s gender binary. Aho!”

Yet another seemingly over-the-top story element played a redemptive role in the struggle to save the American Indian Center from gentrification. Early in the play, Herb (Wes Studi, Cherokee Nation), a good-natured if unfocused elder, innocently picked up a jar of decorative seeds and asked, “are these those Indigenous corn nuts?” Before Herb can eat them, April whisks the jar from his elderly hands and warns him that those corn nuts are “ancient seeds retrieved from an ancestor in a burial ground that was relocated for a freeway." When April explained that the University of Minnesota determined that the seeds will never germinate, Herb retorted, “Whoolay! So, they’re just for looking at.” “They still deserve a respectful home,” April further explained, to which Herb playfully quipped, “I deserve a respectful home.”

An actor holds an object aloft in a classroom set.

Katie Anvil Rich in For the People by Ty Defoe and Larissa Fasthorse at the Guthrie Theatre. Directed by Michael John Garcés. Scenic design by Tanya Orellana. Costume design by Lux Haac. Lighting design by Emma Deane. Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle.

More than a setup for a punchline, the seeds grow into a major plot device. By twisting the law to exploit Native Americans, the charmingly villainous gentrifier Esme (Kendall Kent) vindictively takes a wrecking ball to the American Indian Center. The ancient seeds scatter in the demolition. During a frantic attempt at salvage, the inflexible Herb pretends to pick up the seeds, but instead kicks them into the dirt to avoid the extra work. Shortly thereafter, thunder crashes, lightning cracks, and rain cascades onto the stage as the characters furiously protest the taking of their center. As a torrent of rain covered them, they shouted, “Nations Tribes Must Unite, Franklin Avenue is our right!” Defoe and FastHorse’s stage directions explain what happened next: “Sunlight creeps through the hole in the wall revealing a lush garden of plants growing out of the floor. It’s magical.” 

Upon seeing the volunteer garden, April immediately realizes its significance. “No one has seen a living plant of this variety of corn for centuries,” she marvels. “None of these plants have been seen for generations. Indigenous extinct plants.” Suddenly, Esme’s claim to the American Indian Center becomes null and void because, as Robert explained, “these are protected plants that must not be disturbed. Environmental law trumps ‘Uptowning.’” In the tradition of magic realism present in Indigenous literature across the Western Hemisphere, the miraculous seeds grow overnight into an “extinct garden.” The past saves the present. 

What symbolic and practical harvest will come from planting these seeds?

The Incorporation Stage

The transition from the verisimilitude of McGuire Proscenium Stage back into everyday existence after the play’s conclusion naturally prompted important observations and questions: What will be the impact of this groundbreaking production? What symbolic and practical harvest will come from planting these seeds?

My initial and strongest impression was appreciation for how richly the Guthrie Theater invested in For the People. Weeks before, in the same theatre space, I happily attended Karen Zacarías’ reimagining of Jack Schaefer’s Shane. (My review of this production will be in a forthcoming edition of Theatre Journal.) This entertaining and thoughtful production included one Indigenous character, Winona Stephens (Shayna Jackson, Cree and Dakota), who Zacarias invented out of whole cloth to counter the pulp novel’s unexamined glorification of manifest destiny. If Shane’s act of representation inspired gratitude, For the People inspired jubilation. From the mind of two Native playwrights, I witnessed the good work of six Native actors, including a 2019 Academy Honorary Award winner (Wes Studi). A similarly extravagant investment occurred in the production design leadership with Lux Haac (Pequot and Choctaw Decent) as costume designer and Emma Deane (Citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation ) as lighting designer. The designs culminated in a dazzling flourish. A massive wrecking ball literally cracked open Orellana’s substantial set; gallons of rain poured from the catwalks, fully drenching Haac’s costumes; during the final scene, the entire space was transformed in mere moments from a handsome American Indian Community Center into a wild, untamed garden of indigenous vegetation illuminated by Deane’s magical lighting. Far from the typical practice of relegating Native new work to low-budget and low-tech experimental spaces, the Guthrie invested in people and spectacle.

Hopefully, this investment carries beyond the short-term employment and the extravagant investment of material resources. By reclaiming the ritual center, For the People offers the promise of a new Native theatre, a theatre capable of holding its privileged place at the center of the diverse landscape of the modern American stage.

May more ancient seeds rise from the past and grow a new and flourishing garden of community.

May future journeys to this center enhance and positively change lives. “Aho!”

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