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(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)

TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Native Theatre series

JACQUELINE LAWTON:  First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE:  I am a writer, a storyteller.  But really, I don’t feel like I do that much.  I take stories that others have already told and then I re-shape them, combine them in new ways, and share them.  I am primarily interested in the important human stories that have not yet been told– and even more so those that have been purposefully silenced.  That has led me to write and create a lot of Native plays– but my plays are not exclusively Native.  There are a lot of communities and individuals who have been silenced, and I see theater as an incredible medium to tell stories that otherwise would never be told.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?”

MN :  I identify as Native American.  More specifically, I identify as Cherokee because I am an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.  I am Cherokee the same way someone who has Irish citizenship is Irish.  Federally recognized tribes are sovereign nations, with the right to define their own citizenship—just like France, Canada, and the United States.  Thus, I am Cherokee because a sovereign government has recognized that I am Cherokee.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

MKN :  I don’t think anyone has asked to do my work because I am Native and I don’t think anyone has refused my work because I am Native.  I don’t think it has been about me at all—but about the work itself.  I think a lot of theaters have refused to consider my work because the work itself is Native and involves Native actors and Native themes that are foreign to non-Natives.   I think theaters are less inclined to do Native plays – just look at all of the major theaters in the United States and ask them how many Native plays they have done by Native playwrights.  It’s not discrimination against the Native playwright because the playwright is Native—but instead, it is discriminating against the work that is authentically Native because it does not fit into the traditional racial Indian stereotypes that everyone is comfortable with.

JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?

MKN:  Yes because those are the only theaters doing our work right now.  Every artist needs a community—a theater—an institution to help that artist develop her craft.  Playwrights can’t write plays in a vacuum.  I have learned an immense amount writing and working on my plays with Native theater companies.  If and when one of my “native” plays is someday produced by a non-Native theater—I will have all of the Native theater companies to thank for helping me to shape my craft.  We need our Native theater companies to help develop our artists—because if we don’t do it, no one is going to do it for us.

JL: What is the current state of Native Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

MKN: We are making great progress.  This spring we saw two full productions of beautiful new Native plays by William Yellowrobe and Vickie Ramirez.  And Native Voices at the Autry is doing incredible work year round to support Native playwrights.  I think we are making great progress in developing our own artistic voices and presence in the national theater scene—although the glass ceiling has yet to be shattered.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

MKN :  take Native plays even though they aren’t a “finished” product and help the Native playwright develop the piece.  Support authentic native plays!

Mary Kathryn Nagle was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and an honorary member of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.  She studied theater at Georgetown University, and went on to study law at Tulane Law School, where she graduated summa cum laude and was the recipient of the Judge John Minor Wisdom Award.   At Tulane, she wrote and produced Katrina StoriesWelcome to Chalmette, and To the 7th Degree.  More recently, she has written Miss Lead, which Tulane Law Revue produced at Tulane Law School in April of 2009.  Welcome to Chalmette (Next Stage Press, 2011) won the 2008 TNT POPS Playwriting Contest, and was a finalist in the Reva Shiner Playwriting Contest as well as Aurora Theatre’s 2009-2010 Global Age Project. In 2009, To the 7th Degree was accepted at the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, Nebraska.  She has also written Waaxe’s Law, which was performed at the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska on May 12, 2009, in celebration of the 130th Anniversary of the Trial of Chief Standing Bear.  In December of 2009, Waaxe’s Law received a Challenge America Grant from the National Endowment of the Arts for readings at Creighton Law School in Omaha, Nebraska; the 2010 Annual Chief Standing Bear Celebration in Lincoln, Nebraska; the 2010 Great Plains Theatre Conference; and the 2010 Annual Ponca Pow-Wow.  In October of 2011, the Great Plains Theatre Conference and Metropolitan Community College performed Waaxe’s Law at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and again at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on December 12, 2012.  During her tenure in the Emerging Writers Group, Nagle wrote Manahatta.  Manahatta recently won the Oklahoma CIty Theater Company’s New Native American Play Festival, and will be featured as a side-event in the 2013 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous People.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.