“I’m sorry, but shouldn’t those people be getting over it already?”
A sophisticated commercial theater producer made that comment to me. I had just told him that I was working with my son, Shaun Taylor-Corbett, on a musical about Native Americans fighting to preserve their culture on the impoverished Blackfeet Reservation.
Fortunately, soon after the producer made his comment, Shaun and I received word that our fledgling, called Distant Thunder, was accepted into the Native Voices reading series at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. Shaun’s Blackfeet heritage is what qualified us under their mission: to develop and produce new works for the stage by Native writers, performed by Native actors.
This was in 2012. Despite decades of experience directing musicals, I had never written one or worked in such a unique situation. The first day, we were scheduled to conduct auditions with about 20 tribal members from the LA area, a pool of talent that regularly auditions for TV and film. Typically, we were told, they don’t study voice because roles for Natives in musicals are scarcer than hens’ teeth. It also turned out that Native Voices had never presented a musical before. No piano! In the nick of time, a keyboard was obtained from a rental house.
Native Voices Producing Artistic Director Randy Reinholz, and company Executive Director Jean Bruce Scott were specific with us as to how we would vet the singing skills of the performers. We began by sharing stories, and I went first, describing how I went to school in inner-city Denver with a bunch of kids from local tribes and moved to NYC at the age of 17 to pursue a career as a ballerina. When I said, “Imagine me in a pink tutu!,” there were a few titters and this cold room full of strangers began to warm up. As each person spoke, I, too, became disarmed by their stories — of being deserted by a mother or father; of being beaten for having blue eyes; of being homeless.
Matt Smedal, our musical director, taught a passage from one of the show’s songs, written by Shaun and his partner, Chris Wiseman. The verse traveled around the room, one person at a time. If one actor faltered, another jumped in and sang along. I asked if anyone might want to sing their own song. The brave ones stepped up; we were treated to a capella renditions of tribal songs and cowboy songs performed on guitar. Everyone was greeted with a round of applause. No one left humiliated. Despite the unique process, or maybe because of it, we successfully cast our reading.
Randy and Jeannie met on the set of the sitcom Newhart; she had a guest role and he was visiting a friend. They realized they had more than their work in common and married in 1989, a year to the day of their meeting (“luckiest day of my life,” Randy likes to say). In 1993, when they were both on the faculty of Illinois State University, they decided to look for a script that would reflect Randy’s Choctaw culture. Not an easy task: there were few if any contemporary Native writers being produced in professional theater at the time, and only occasional roles for a Native actors — usually a stereotype in a historical play.
Working through Toronto’s Native Earth Performing Arts and The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, they located five Native playwrights and brought them in for readings and discussions. The playwrights were thrilled to hear their work out loud and it was soon revealed that not one of them had ever been invited to participate in a theatrical festival before. In 1994 — a time when many Americans still believed “real Indians” were extinct — Randy and Jeannie produced their first play and Native Voices was born.
Having been actors themselves, they were determined to pay their artists a fair wage and quickly became an Equity company. By 1999, they had become the resident company at the Autry Museum, which is situated high on a hill in LA, and the mother ship of Native theater in the US. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts followed. Some 30 productions, including 22 world premieres, plus more than 200 workshops and countless readings later, Randy offered me one quip to explain the path of Native Voices:
Our motto is: I am the mouth, she is the brains — and we are the heart.
The early plays they received, written after generations of silence, were about historical oppression and abuse. Later, plays began to deal with complex, contemporary issues as well. In Indian country, a Native woman is four times more likely to experience sexual assault. The suicide rate is nearly 10 times higher. And there’s an epidemic of missing and murdered women. So there’s much to draw upon in addition to themes of hopes and dreams and the kitchen sink.
Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagel is an example of someone who furthered her craft through Native Voices and went on to larger stages. I saw her play Manahatta in 2018 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). It is partly set in 1626, as the Lenape people are tricked into selling Manhattan to the Dutch for wampum. And partly set during the crash of 2008, when a brilliant Wall Street executive and descendant of the Lenape watches her Manahatta slip away for a second time.
At OSF, I also saw Randy’s own play, Off the Rails. Based on Measure for Measure, it is an utter eye-opener about Native children ripped from their families and imprisoned in boarding schools. For the largely white audience, this material seemed to be a revelation.
On the night that we presented Distant Thunder, I pressed myself against the back wall of the theater and watched the audience file in. Many tribes were represented. Suddenly I grew fearful that our story, the experience of the reservation, might not ring true for them, despite our deep connections there. I became self-conscious of the fact that, unlike my son, I am non-Native. Jeannie told me to be prepared to go onstage afterward, that she would facilitate a talkback. In a whisper, I suggested that Shaun should go up alone — that he’s the face of our project. She insisted that we both had to participate.
How does anyone get to the truth of their work without the mirror of an audience? Their spontaneous reactions to our show immediately guided the rewrites that followed. And I did take my place on the stage that night, beside my son, drenched with sweat, my pad and pencil ready. Jeannie asked for comments, and dozens of hands shot up. People articulated what they liked, what wasn’t clear and what we could lose. Finally, a woman stood up and shouted:
But you nailed the ‘rez’. You nailed it!
And everyone applauded.
Randy recently told me that he and Jeannie are having an internal discussion about their eventual successors — theirs will be very hard shoes to fill! Without the forum they have painstakingly developed, a whole generation of Native playwrights would never have been heard. They don’t just nurture plays. They nurture the people who flock to their refuge on the hill — who gather up what has been scattered over unapologetic decades of American history and put it on stage for all of us to see.