A Fierce and Acknowledged Representation

by Madeline Sayet

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

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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.

MADELINE SAYET: I am currently the Director-in-Residence at Amerinda (American Indian Artists) Inc. I am also the Artistic Director of The Mad and Merry Theatre Company. In addition to directing, I work as an actor and teaching artist.

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

MS: I am a member of the Mohegan tribe. My mother is the Medicine Woman of our tribe and my great-grand-aunt Gladys Tantaquidgeon was the Medicine Woman before her. Gladys lived to be 106. I was very fortunate to be raised on traditional Mohegan lands around traditional people. Gladys, her brother Harold, and her father founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in 1931. So I grew up with an awareness of the importance of telling your own stories. In addition to our Mohegan names, my brother and I both have middle names that honor strong Mohegan leaders.

My father’s family is Jewish and I am also proud of all the intelligent hardworking people on his side of the family. He set up his law practice near the tribe, with his sister. On both sides, I am proud to come from very strong female leaders and very socially-conscious families.

When I got to college in New York City, I was confronted for the first time with tremendous ignorance about Native peoples, and it quickly became a battle I had to fight, whether I wanted to or not; the ignorance was that great.

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?

MS: Having been raised Native and not looking recognizably Native is an interesting dilemma in Theatre. People are used to seeing Non-Natives play Natives on film, so cultural awareness is frequently sacrificed in favor of stereotypical appearances. I was told in school not to let casting people know that I was Native.

Indians do not only look one way. They never have. Allowing those assumptions to continue encourages the future decimation of our peoples and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

Right after I graduated, I was working with Native playwright William Yellowrobe Jr. in Maine.  He encouraged me not to give other people the right to tell me who I am. Since then, I have been fortunate to work with other Native playwrights as an actor and director. Native people have never questioned who I am, only non-native people.

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?

MS: We have been shown false images and narratives of Natives for too long in this country. The amount of racism overwhelms society’s knowledge of who we are. Most people don’t know that there are over five hundred Native nations in the United States with different cultures, but are instead informed by films and Halloween costumes. My great-grand-uncle Harold Tantaquidgeon used to say “You can’t hate someone you know a lot about.” Without self-representation in theatre we will never have the chance to tell our stories. I hope that someday we can all work together and trust each other. But first, there needs to be a fierce and acknowledged representation of Native voices onstage.

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

MS: I had an improv teacher who said in class that he thought nothing was funnier than making up weird Native American rituals, because he knew nothing about Native Americans and therefore people would believe anything. Everyone in class (except me) laughed in agreement.

I believe this perspective is too real.

However, there are a few Native theatre companies in New York now, and I believe we are slowly building toward changing that image. Someday I hope there will be an actual theater, a building, here in Manahatta/Manhattan that is dedicated to the indigenous theatre of this country.

Too much of America believes we are dead- that we are a faerie tale people, for mockery and nostalgia but not grounded in reality. The images of Native peoples portrayed onstage have too long been those of the past. The key to our future is contemporary indigenous theatre that shares our stories in the present. I don’t mean that we need one mythical essentializing Native story. I hope for every Native nation on this continent to have its own voice and share its own culture.

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

MS: There may be a time when all races, ethnicities, and genders can portray each other freely without hurt. But, that time has not yet come. If you are working on a piece of theatre that has Native American characters or stories in it, please involve the Native community whose culture and stories they are. People frequently don’t realize that regurgitating other people’s bad research on Indians does not constitute authentic inquiry. To learn something about Indians, meet them, firsthand. Go see a Native play, and remember that these stories are not foreign. These are the stories of America. Some passed down through generations, and others the stories of today. Both are indigenous. My aunt Gladys called these stories, “The Literature of the Land.”

Madeline SayetMadeline Sayet is a recipient of The White House Champion of Change Award for her work as a director, performer, writer, and educator. She is the Artistic Director of The Mad and Merry Theatre Company and Director-In-Residence at Amerinda (American Indian Artists) Inc. She earned her BFA in Theatre and MA in Arts Politics: Post-Colonial Theory from NYU.

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. jacquelinelawton.com