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Post-Apocalyptic Theatre on Native Land

In the Tlingit culture, there is a philosophy that everything has its time. When a totem pole decays you do not expend a lot of effort restoring and putting it back up; you let it fall, and it goes back to the earth it came from. A person’s legacy is only as old as the memory their grandchildren have of them; if a person has done good work, the grandchildren will take what the person gave them and grow it, but the elder’s responsibility to this earth is done.

I might also mention we have a strong value of not being afraid of death.

And so I must ask about American theatre: Is its time done? Are we expending effort to keep something simply because we believe it must continue to exist? Is it time for its death?

The most difficult part of writing about the “future of theatre” is that I’m not terribly invested in the American theatre surviving. That’s not an opinion I share much in theatre circles, but I suppose the secret is out now, and of my own hand. Yet I barely have to speak that idea out loud in many Native communities to be understood and agreed with. To most Native communities—or at least the Alaska Native communities I was born to—“American theatre” has (ironically) had very little to do with them. What reason could we have to put our energy into something that has not just historically wanted nothing to do with real Native people, but actively brought harm to our communities?

The imagining a future of performing arts part is actually quite easy for me.

It looks like the past. It looks like Tlingit people speaking and singing in bold and experienced tones the language of the land in amphitheaters that gathered our people for millennia.

It looks like the stories we stewarded for generations joining with the stories of our artists of today.

It looks like the profession of the artist being valued as it has always been in our Tlingit culture, both in societal position and with a thriving wage, and the most disciplined and imaginative and generous artists operating from positions of honor and respect.

Maybe the hardest vision to wish on the American theatre field is a way of existing as artists in our Tlingit culture. The arts are not looked at as separate from the rest of Tlingit society. That “theatre piece” is part of the economy of the community, the education of the children, the history of the clan to be memorized, the skills of crafters being passed forward, the spirituality and communal values being practiced. It is not a place only for people with money or a certain degree of education, but a requirement for everyone at every stage of life. I was raised to own a very heavy responsibility to make sure I am experiencing the stories of the community.

The theatre I dream of is not so hard to dream up because it is simply the values our people have always given the performing arts, taking their place in a modern world that has tried so hard to make them disappear.

Maybe the time between yesterday and our artistic future was total destruction. Maybe it was a purposeful killing. Maybe it was a baptism of renewal. Maybe it was inevitable. But before the rebirth comes the death of what was.

What reason could we have to put our energy into something that has not just historically wanted nothing to do with real Native people, but actively brought harm to our communities?

American theatre as it stands did not passively replace an absence of performing arts on these continents. We had hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct performing arts traditions, and those traditions were actively silenced, stolen, punished—made illegal. Some of the performing arts traditions included in my most recent stage production were literally against the law in my father’s lifetime; a marriage ceremony performed in the play could land a Tlingit couple, and all who witnessed it, two years in jail. Moving forward, the American theatre cannot impose an alien standard on Native cultures’ performing arts pieces, an attempt to add “Native flair” to pieces that come from a non-Native perspective. American theatre must be a celebration of the arts the land has known since the ice age. The arts that are still there, still being practiced by people whose ancestors have lived on this land for that long.

After the American theatre has put the work into learning, after it has connected back to the land itself, after appreciating that we must maintain a connection and responsibility toward the area we wake in each day, we can rebuild the physical spaces we perform on. The performing arts facades do not pretend to be from a culture far away, but sprawl out to incorporate themselves into the land itself.

A tombstone labeled "Dead American Theatre" on the dirt in front of blue curtains. Various signs are on the curtains and vegetation is behind them.

Illustration by Silent Fox, inspired by the essay.

Inside, the hosts of the arts do not seek to cram as many as possible into a space, maximizing profit at the expense of comfort and safety, but to set a space for guests that invites immersion into the story. A space on this land where guests fully see, hear, and feel the story. In this place the storytelling styles are as varied as those telling the stories. The stories last however long they must last, without standard or gate placed in its way. The lights never completely go down on the guests, as they are an important connection to the storyteller and the story.

But ultimately, what happens in each community is not up to me. It will never be up to me. It’s not even necessarily up to “us.” Because the “us” deciding the future of theatre on any given land needs to be people from that land. Tlingit performing arts traditions look nothing like Yup’ik, or Lakota, or Mohegan. The art should come from the land in every way, and the people performing should feel that connection from the space they are in, to the words they say, to the music that is played.

I was a co-state blogger representing Alaska during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and on the day Senator Obama accepted his nomination for the presidency, I was waiting for the bus with an Elder Black activist who had been involved in civil rights work in the South before moving to Alaska decades before. I asked him if he had imagined in the 1960s, organizing and marching, that he would be helping to nominate someone like Senator Obama. I asked him if he imagined he would be alive to see a Black president in the Oval Office.

After a moment’s reflection he said no, he did not. Back then, he said, all they were hoping for in that office was an ally. Someone friendly to their work. In the cruelness of their present, they couldn’t imagine the country was capable of growing that much in a single lifetime.

Of course our present reminds us of how far we still have to go. But it also hints at a future we can’t quite dream yet. Today, as I finish this piece, justice for the murder of George Floyd is in the hands of the jury, the first helicopter flight took place on another planet, 750,000 more people have COVID, and I got asked to speak to Native students about being a writer. Already, you see this from a future I can’t even plan for right now.

Maybe our vision of a society led by Native people once again seems so “out there” to some, and outright hostile to others. But we did pretty well the first ten thousand years or so.

In Native communities when discussing “Indigenous futurisms,” a common term to use about any future doomsday event is “the second apocalypse.” We live and exist as people who lost 90 percent of the population of some villages in less than a year. Native ancestors of the nineteenth century were forced, as whole communities, on death marches to fenced prisons. Native grandparents of the twentieth century were stolen from their families and placed in abusive institutions, not able to see their homes until adulthood, after being force-fed Western culture. The Native people of today are those whose grandparents survived the apocalypse.

So imagining a world without the American theatre as we know it is easy for me. In our current post-apocalyptic world, Western theatre is a newcomer to our land and has not invited us in, much less allowed us to literally direct the story.

Before this pandemic, my husband and I had been working on a story off and on for several years. It was a future of Alaska in which Alaska Native people were once again the political and social power of the land we have managed for over ten thousand years. The organizational structures, educational systems, inter-culture protocol, and of course arts and culture standards that dominated the land were realized once again in a near future that saw us taking back the power we held after this momentary blip on the land of Western colonization.

The inciting event? A worldwide pandemic.

Staring down an actual pandemic, we decided to shelve it. Not only did we not think there would be a public appetite for post-pandemic stories, but we didn’t have the stomach for it ourselves.

But recently I’ve been thinking about it again. While not the pandemic of our second apocalypse, COVID-19 has certainly turned people toward thinking about what we need to be building back. Maybe our vision of a society led by Native people once again seems so “out there” to some, and outright hostile to others. But we did pretty well the first ten thousand years or so.

The arts give us a safe place to feel these futures out, to play with the ideas of what we could be as a society. We test our ideas on stage and discuss them after and laugh about how silly they are, or dream about how wonderful they could be, or talk about how thankful we are not to have to go through that scary thing. And then our next decision is guided just a little bit by that hope, or fear, or discussion, or idea. And another, and another, and another, and then one day we have a society that is stronger and healthier than what we were handed because we helped make it stronger and healthier. The jury is still out on who chooses to participate in that, make space for it, and leave that legacy too.

For now, our generations decide what lives or dies, and I hope we are both ruthless and thoughtful in what we do. If you want American theatre to survive, feed it from the land. Let the ancestors in the room. Help this country recover from hundreds of years of violence and consider who that violence was visited on.

Some things need to die, and some things need to be nourished. The decay we feel for institutions should not be feared. Death is natural. But where you find injustice, feed it justice. Where you find theft, feed it restoration. Where you find apathy, and hurt, and silence, feed passion, and healing, and voice. And then tomorrow, do it all again.

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It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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