Off the Rails

Look at Shakespeare, See a Native Play

In late October 2017, Off the Rails, Randy Reinholz’s new adaptation of Measure for Measure, closed its world premiere run at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). Described by OSF as “Blazing Saddles meets Shakespeare,” it is part comedy, part musical, part drama, and part Shakespeare. Reinholz (Choctaw) has incorporated Shakespeare’s plot and dialogue into and alongside of his own. Off the Rails tells a truthful and sometimes painful story about Native Americans during the time that “kill the Indian and save the man” was touted as wisdom. Reinholz wraps his troubling tale in the innocence of young love and a raucous, raunchy comedy.

Set in 1880s Nebraska, it follows Momaday (played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Blackfeet) a young, Pawnee man at the local boarding school for Indians, who has secretly married a young, Irish woman from the town; they are now expecting a child. The town’s interim mayor, Angelo, is also the superintendent of the boarding school, where he has recently instilled strict discipline (and abuse). Upon discovering the young lovers and learning they married according to the customs of Momaday’s culture (and not a Christian marriage), Angelo decrees Momaday will die for his crimes: an illegal ceremony means any copulation amounts to the crime of fornication. Isabel (played by Lily Gladstone, Blackfeet/Nimi’iipu), Momaday’s sister and an assimilated Pawnee woman (refuses to speak her native language, has converted to Christianity, is studying to be a school teacher in Indian boarding schools), tries to convince Angelo to have mercy on her brother. Instead, Angelo propositions her to have sex with him in exchange for sparing her brother. The local brothel owner, Madame Overdone (played by Sheila Tousey, Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee), convinces Isabel to agree to this egregious proposal by offering one of her own employees—and Angelo’s former fiancée, to take Isabel’s place, a nod to Shakespeare’s bed trick. Angelo takes advantage of the coerced sex side of the bargain, but does not deliver on his promised reprieve of Momaday. However, Madame Overdone, the mayor’s assistant, and the local sheriff, itching for the return of the rightful mayor from an extended trip, hatch a plan to kidnap Momaday, convince all he is dead, and reveal Angelo’s duplicity. As in Shakespeare’s play, Angelo is publicly shamed and the young lovers are reunited.

Lily Gladstone
Lily Gladstone in Off the Rails, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Off the Rails appears to be a straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare. And it is. But, it is more. The temporal, spatial, and cultural changes it makes to the source material are not a result of mere aesthetic experimentation, a search for novelty, or contemporary political commentary. The adaptation does not add a Wild West veneer to a canonical text or introduce Native Americans into this narrative to pontificate on an issue. Instead, it centers Native American characters and experiences within a dramaturgical structure that allows audiences a familiar point of entry. Given that the playwright is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma it might also appear that Off the Rails is a straightforward Native American play. And it is. But, it is more.

Defining the category of Native American play by the playwright’s identity alone, while not strictly inaccurate, provides only a thin understanding, and not one that captures the many dimensions Native plays possess or the many strategies they employ. Reinholz offers a far more complex and richer definition of a Native play. Yes, Off the Rails is a play written by a Native man. Yes, it has Native characters. Yes, it includes subjects often connected to Natives. But these elements are just the surface. Off the Rails is the story of how Native people make the best of a bad situation, how they cling stubbornly to life, to family, to joy.

Off the Rails shows how Native plays can include depictions or descriptions of Native history but as an element of lived experience, not as the entirety of the play’s purpose.

These layers within the play are not legible to some audience members. During the matinee I attended, the woman to my right was greatly disappointed with the production, complaining that “this is about a man and woman. I wanted to see a play about Indians.” When I asked her to explain, she indicated the play was simply not educational enough. I experienced the production quite differently. I saw the story as a memorial to the trauma the assimilation era wrought on Native American people and a celebration of Native life, love, and resilience, of what writer Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Chippewa) calls “survivance.” I saw many moments from which to learn in the play, like when Momaday and his love meet in secret. She asks him to tell her a story. He tells of the day he arrived at the boarding school: his hair was cut, and he was beaten for singing songs in Pawnee. While Momaday’s experience is historically accurate, Reinholz does more than deploy the lovers as a didactic tool to teach the audience about the deeply damaging Indian boarding school system. The moment teaches audiences the specific reality in which the lovers live, one that includes physical violence but is not defined by or reduced to it. In moments like these, Off the Rails shows how Native plays can include depictions or descriptions of Native history, but as an element of lived experience, not as the entirety of the play’s purpose.

Twice in the show, Reinholz invites the audience to witness a profound conflict between two Native characters. In the final scene of Act One, Isabel visits Momaday in jail to tell him of Angelo’s lascivious offer, and the siblings end up in a heated argument. Isabel accuses Momaday of making trouble for all Natives by choosing not to assimilate. He retorts she “will never be smart enough. Or white enough” for the whites to forget she is an Indian. This is not an argument in which the characters seek to verbally destroy one another or win imaginary points in a battle of wits. This is the pain of holding on to something while knowing you are also losing something. This kind of conflict occurs later, when Madame Overdone who is of Lakota/French descent accuses James McDonald (played by Christopher Salazar, Cayuga/Seneca), the mayor’s assimilated Choctaw assistant, of doing nothing to help the children at the boarding school. McDonald defends his actions by describing his plan to change the system from within, and he accuses Overdone of being interested only in making a profit for herself. She replies that money is the only thing white people value, and so Natives need it to gain power. Here are two people who share a similar goal, differ on strategy, and question each other’s commitments. They fight over who is the real Native, which tactics are more effective, and whether the ultimate goal is assimilation, power, change, or something else. This is the pain of living in an untenable world and having to choose a way forward. Native plays show audiences points of tension that Native characters face, the questions that seek to define them, the strategies they employ to assist their communities.

two actors onstage
Madame Overdone (Sheila Tousey) hatches a plan to free Isabel (Lily Gladstone) and Momaday (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) from Angelo’s treachery, Off the Rails, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Photo by Jenny Graham.

It is not incidental that these two powerful moments include Native women. In dominant, American culture the most familiar Native woman is Pocahontas, a fictive version of a real person. In Off the Rails the Native women are bold, gutsy, savvy, and resolute. Isabel and Overdone navigate life strategically to best bolster their people’s strength. The play passes both the Aila Test and the Bechdal Test, which though made for film are useful feminist measures for Native women’s representation in theatre. Off the Rails reflects the role Native women have historically, traditionally, and contemporarily had as our most important leaders in caring for our relations. Relations include clan and nation, earth and sky, water, food, and life. Native women often lead our governments, cultures, families, businesses, and education, and Isabel and Overdone are no exception. Yet, this does not exempt them from their precarious position nor prevent the violence often directed at them. Off the Rails shows the strength of Native women but also their vulnerability. Isabel’s request of Angelo and his response of coercive, sexual force is a power dynamic common but not unique to the Native experience. Over 80 percent of Native American and Alaska Native women today have experienced a form of intimate partner violence (sexual, physical, psychological). The dramatic impact of this moment, when a powerful man demands sexual favors from a less powerful woman was decidedly more prescient and sinister late in the run. In a post-Weinstein world Isabel’s “choice” to agree to Angelo’s proposition is clearly not a “choice” but a desperate, last resort. Despite the threats Isabel and Overdone face in the play they continue to care for their communities and to work together to see that mercy and justice are done. This connection to and responsibility for Native community that every Native character in Off the Rails displays is another characteristic of Native plays.

Native plays show audiences’ points of tension that Native characters face, the questions that seek to define them, the strategies they employ to assist their communities.

OSF’s support for this potent play is remarkable, even more so because it is the first Native American authored play ever produced in OSF’s eighty-two-year history. OSF’s artistic director and director of Off the Rails, Bill Rauch, has spoken of how he was “appropriately shamed” by Waylon Lenk’s article in HowlRound on the state of Native theatre in Oregon. On Lenk’s recommendation Rauch chose Off the Rails as OSF’s inaugural Native-authored play. The play’s run was often sold out, talkback sessions were well attended, and donors were pleased to support this play as part of OSF’s forward-thinking and forward-theatre-making commitment to showing “our collective humanity.” Producing Off the Rails was not the first step OSF took to developing relationships with Native artists and Native plays. The company has also recently commissioned Yvette Nolan (Algonquin) to adapt Shakespeare as part of its Play on! project and the 1491s (a Native American sketch comedy group) to create a work for its American Revolutions play cycle on US history. It will also produce Mary Kathryn Nagle’s (Cherokee) Manahatta in its 2018 season. OSF’s commissioning and producing of Native plays is one outcome of significant efforts by a community of theatremakers who have advocated for and invested in Native playwrights, plays, and actors. In 2015, Reinholz wrote an article on the state of Native theatre and declared the time was ripe for producing Native plays, for hiring Native actors. The pieces were there. The puzzle was waiting to be put together. Reinholz contributed to Off the Rails success by doing more than writing the play. In 1994 he co-founded Native Voices (now Native Voices at the Autry) with Jean Bruce Scott, the only Equity theatre company devoted to developing Native playwrights, plays, and actors.

Off the Rails is not an overnight success. But, it is an example of how Native playwrights thoughtfully and carefully connect their stories to communities. For example, the character of Momaday’s grandfather, a spirit who visits the young man regularly, is cast from a tribe or nation of the region in which the play is produced. For OSF’s production it was played by Brent Florendo (Confederated Tribes of Warms Springs-Wasco). The Native songs used at OSF also reflected the region’s Native peoples. Neither of these choices are noted in the program or publicity material. They are quiet and powerful ways to honor the people of and the land on which the play is performed. Native plays thank the people and the places that give them life.

actors dance onstage
Jen Olivares, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, Lily Gladstone and Román Zaragoza are among the seven Native actors in the cast of Off the Rails, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Off the Rails is only one example of how Native plays incorporate and highlight the richness and complexity of Native life. It shows how the past and the present are inseparable. It reminds us that life is not lived at the edges of a colonial nation, but is built and celebrated within it. Off the Rails is not Shakespeare with Indians nor an educational tool to teach white audiences about Native American history. It is a decolonial act of love, of storytelling, of community. It is a Native play.

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Kudos to OSF for presenting this play. Thanks for this in-depth, informative article. Makes me wish even more that I could have seen the production.

This was one of the shows I was eager to see at OSF last season. I enjoyed the scenes with the Native characters and found their drama touching and real (and I bet those actors found it a relief to play Native characters with depth and muscularity).