At 40, Spiderwoman Theater Remains Emblem of Native Spirit

Screen shot from Legacy Leaders of Color video series by the Theater Communications Group.

In one of my file drawers I keep a sheaf of reviews written for TheaterWeek, a print magazine that shuttered years ago. The time was January 1990, when I was a rising junior at NYU (rising to what, I don’t know) and offered an internship at TheaterWeek as its listings editor. I didn’t know that I wanted to be an arts journalist — my goal was playwriting — but I knew I was fascinated by the art and craft of criticism. When a chance to review Off- and Off-Off-Broadway arose, I jumped, covering performance art by David Greenspan (2 Samuel 11, Etc.) and Sapphire (later to pen the novel that inspired the film Precious); a clowning escapade by the legendary Geoff Hoyle (Feast of Fools); new plays by Willy Holtzman and Seth Zvi Rosenfeld; and new musicals by AMAS Musical Theatre and at the Vineyard Theatre. Of all the shows, however, Rever-ber-ber-ations still rever-ber-ber-ates in my memory. This company of three Native women, with layers of text atop layers of text, and fascinating riffs on cultural references. This question of “What can theater be?” — which is always the right question to ask of any audience, but particularly one with a 22-year-old critic present. This was Spiderwoman Theater’s great gift to us all, as they directly challenged our — and my — understanding of what narrative could be:

Rever-ber-ber-ations begins with a moment of darkness at Theater for the New City. But when you start to wonder what went wrong, there’s a sudden and deafening barrage of sounds: the clanging of metal, the slapping of wood against the concrete floor. Then, in a flash of light, the three women which comprise this production, Muriel Miguel, Lisa Mayo, and Gloria Miguel, appear before us and launch into a screamingly funny version of Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’.

These Native women were Kuna and Rappahannock, I reported — sisters all, and all psychics as well. Rever-ber-ber-ations, I concluded, was a work of theater in the form of a demand — that we “end the lip service Americans typically pay to the occult”; that we “raise the consciousness of the audience” of, and about, Native Americans. Founded in 1976, Spiderwoman Theater now has the dual distinction of being the world’s longest-running Native American theater company and the longest continuously active feminist performance collective in North America. And on Tues, Sept. 19, their more than 20 works and stunning legacy will be feted in “LU! LU! LU! LU! An Evening Celebrating Spiderwoman Theater’s 40 Years,” at La Mama in NYC’s East Village.

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A little less than a year ago, our colleagues at Theatre Communications Group produced this superb video with Muriel, which I urge you to watch — and then think about.

What follows is the transcript of an interview conducted on behalf of the CFR with Muriel Miguel. Please read her full bio here as well.

The Clyde Fitch Report: How do see your role as someone who creates work that brings out a response that is emotional and connects with people personally?

Muriel Miguel: There’s so many secrets that we hide. The family secrets, and the secrets that happen to you. I think a lot of the time that’s what I’m interested in, or what I’m curious about. How do you look at it? If you turn it this way, it looks like that. If you turn it that way, it looks like this. I’m interested in the whole thing. The work is many layers. So many layers, and sometimes you have layers upon layers and then you cut out a piece, and you discover a blue layer that was under the red. And then you go down deeper and you pull out yellow or black. So it’s all those layers coming together and peeping out and making another design, making it to go another way.

A lot of the stuff you have to fight, a lot of the stuff you have to look at differently, is the colonialism. We go to theater school and that’s how we’re taught: first you do a scene and then you have voice class, then you have movement. And you do a class in every one of those things, but nobody talks about putting them together! So I feel that when you’re teaching or when you’re working, you have to hit on all of those things. It isn’t that it’s one finger, and then the next finger. It’s all your fingers going in at the same time. And that’s how I feel about my work, it isn’t like one layer. It’s lots of layers and that you’re pulling things up and examining them. And that’s so different than the colonial way of working.

I also don’t think improvisation is just off the top of your head. You start somewhere, you go someplace else. The place where your body first goes when improvising — you should remember that. You should remember: how did you get there? Did you do a swing, did you do a jump, did you do a dab? And then, when you got there, what happened to you emotionally?

I’m really interested in how the body moves in space, to get to where you want it to go. And sometimes through improvisation you see that. You see where the person wanted to go the first time.

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CFR: Do actors working with you find that they’ve learned unique things about themselves at the end of the process?

MM: Actors do really learn some very special things about themselves at the end of a production. One woman who was in Material Witness said, “Oh my God, I came to NYC to learn about theater and here I am in this group, and I learned more here about being a Native woman than I ever would anyplace else.” I think that happens a lot of times with actors and students also. They don’t think of themselves as who they are. Depth is finding out who you are.

I have a new piece that I’m writing now. I don’t know what it is. For now it’s called Fear of Oatmeal. It’s about an old house and memories of an old house. There’s a woman who is psychic; she has enough power to do things and make things happen. She’s alone in her house. And she has friends that come to her and nag her and she fights with her friends. But then she goes off on these tangents she’s thinking of in her head.

I heard Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about the stars and what’s in the stars, and that the stars were our stars, and they went away — and I understood him completely. We’re just newer stars than those old stars that are out there. That’s what our bodies are made of: stardust. If we can think of our bodies as made up of stars — it really hit me because that’s my clan. That belief that we come from the stars — that’s where the creation stories come from.

In Red Mother, there’s a whole thing of the universe and stars. And I never really think about it, but that’s something I refer to all the time. The feeling that we are from the stars. The idea that someone is trying to destroy it — that’s how I think about it when I think of the crazy person in North Korea: he’s trying to destroy the stars. And Trump. And all these senators who say there’s no such thing as global warming: they’re trying to destroy the stars.

The other thing I’ve been working on besides Fear of Oatmeal is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And again, the impetus was “Damn it, we should be telling our stories!” We have all these stories. All the stories of how creation happened; these are our stories. Why can’t we use our stories? A Midsummer’s Night Dream could happen with our stories. We have shape-shifters, we have tricksters, we have Nanabush; it goes on across this continent. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the pretty pixies.

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CFR: Do you think there is a legacy of Native theater in the US?

MM: Well, I think it’s really happening across the country. We have to be careful. We have to really take the responsibility of doing our pieces and make sure that, if we’re going to write a Native story, we have Native people in it. And that’s one of the things that was not happening for a long time. People did these things and they were not Native. I saw a comment on Facebook, a Native actor was saying: “The woman is very nice, but she’s not Native. She’s Asian. And yes, her great-great grandmother was a Cherokee, but isn’t everybody’s great-great-grandmother Cherokee?” I just feel that we have to find ways of doing it, ways of committing ourselves, of exploring. Sometimes it’s not going to be the way the white world sees it. Questioning yourself as you go along — I think it is part of that, too. It’s all about seeing what works and what doesn’t work and what you want to show. How else can we tell the story?

CFR: Fear of Oatmeal is such an interesting title. Where did you get it from?

MM: When I was born, my mother was trying to save her marriage, so she had another baby, and my father was a drunk. And she had the baby and she thought that it would bring him back and he wouldn’t be a drunk anymore. That didn’t happen, and all I felt was that I wasn’t of any use to her. I didn’t solve the problem, right? But I had two older sisters that really took care of me. They became my mothers. But my mother would do things like make oatmeal every day. I would have it going to school, I would have it coming home from school. Coming home for lunch, I would have oatmeal. The only time that I didn’t have oatmeal was supper — she didn’t cook; my father or my uncle or someone else would cook. Then I rebelled and I wouldn’t eat oatmeal. Just the smell would me angry. And I was in my 40s before I started to eat oatmeal again.