The Public Theater: Native Theater Festival
The Public goes native, courtesy of a lot of Canadian talent
November 13, 2008
NEW YORK -- In a coincidence that seems arranged by the spirits, aboriginal
Canadian performers and writers spanning a century are appearing in New
York this week as part of two separate events that demonstrate the enormous
distance native culture has travelled in that time.
The American Museum of Natural History's annual Margaret Mead Film & Video
Festival, which presents works engaged in ethnography, will host a rare
screening tomorrow evening of a newly restored print of In The Land of the
Headhunters, a 1914 silent film set among the Kwakwaka'wakw in British
Columbia. When the film premiered last June in Vancouver, some descendents
of the cast suggested their ancestors participated in the production as a
subversive way of presenting their culture at a time when official
government policy was extremely oppressive.
Downtown, living native culture will take the stage of the Public Theater
in the form of the second annual Native Theater Festival, which opened last
night with a concert at Joe's Pub by Martha Redbone. This year's festival,
which will draw hundreds of industry players, including literary managers
from theatres around New York and across the U.S., includes three staged
readings of plays, a public panel discussion on Saturday afternoon and
numerous other meetings.
The festival was originated by Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director
now in his fourth year, who had actively sought out native writers during
his tenure as head of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.,
including Canadian Drew Hayden Taylor, whose play The Buz'Gem Blues he
produced in 2005. The Ford Foundation, a long-time supporter of the arts in
the United States, is footing the festival's $175,000 bill.
The Public has a long history of giving space to those outside the
mainstream, particularly members of visible minorities, being a strong New
York base for playwrights such as Diana Son, Suzan-Lori Parks, George C.
Wolfe (who served as the theatre's previous artistic director), Anna
Deveare Smith, Nilo Cruz and David Henry Hwang.
"The Public has always been kind of a trailblazer in giving voice to
artists of colour and giving voice to experiences that are not represented
on our stages. That is in the DNA of this building," said Mandy Hackett,
the theater's associate artistic director. "Diversity is really a core
tenet of what the Public is built on. I think we've seen success in the
African-American community, the Latino community, the Asian community, but
I really feel strongly we haven't seen the same success in the native
Two of the three plays in the festival will be directed by Canadians: Marie
Clements from Galiano Island in British Columbia will direct tonight's
kickoff play, The Conversion of Ka'Ahumanu, about the relationship between
the Christian missionaries in Hawaii and indigenous women in the 19th
century, by the native Hawaiian/Samoan writer Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl;
Alanis King will helm Laura Shamas's Chasing Honey tomorrow, featuring the
Canadian actress Tamara Podemski. The latter has previously received a
workshop production at Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto.
Other Canadians taking part include playwright Daniel David Moses, Yvette
Nolan and Jennifer Podemski, all of whom helped to curate the festival by
serving on its advisory board. And Monique Mojica, Michelle St. John, and
Billy Merasty will appear in the third play, Eric Gansworth's Re-Creation
Story, a playful alteration of the Haudenosaunee creation narrative.
Many are also participating in the various field discussions - closed to
the public - designed for members of the industry to talk openly about
issues affecting native theatre.
Hackett noted that, during a field discussion last year, the native
Americans expressed mild envy of the sense of community and government
support enjoyed by their Canadian cousins. "I think Canada is challenging
America to say, 'How can you support your native artists on the same level
that we do?' That's a big issue for native artists living in America."
Nolan, the artistic director of Toronto's Native Earth, echoed the
sentiment. "We seem to the Americans that we're quite organized and have
some kind of solidarity they don't necessarily feel. They feel more
far-flung. I don't know if that's true; that's just our perception of each
other," she said on the phone from Toronto yesterday, during a brief break
in rehearsals for A Very Polite Genocide, which opens next month at
Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. "I can name five, six, seven native
theatre companies in Canada, and the Americans don't have that kind of
depth and breadth."
Still, Nolan noted, while government funding in Canada is greater than in
the U.S., "from where I sit, it doesn't feel like enough."
So, naturally, one of the goals of the festival is to see some of the work
on the Public's stage in a full production. "We are looking for
relationships with theatres like the Public, where the work can be shown,
so we're not always doing nickel-and-dime theatre because we only have
nickels and dimes, to have our work seen by a broader audience."
Nolan recognizes that Eustis is inundated with pitches for full productions
from all quarters of the theatre world. "At least he's listening to us. We
know he's interested because he's having this festival, we know he's
honourable because he's been producing work at Trinity Rep by Drew [Hayden
Taylor], so we know it's not just lip service, that there will be an
opportunity for somebody, somewhere."
Hackett says, in planning future seasons at the Public, "these plays are
absolutely infiltrating our discussions."
The Native Theater Festival continues through Saturday at New York's Public