(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.
AMERINDA is uniquely positioned as the only independent, multi-arts organization of its kind in the United States serving emerging and established Native American artists. Since its inception in 1987, AMERINDA has been offering a community of encouragement and assistance to Native American artists pursuing professional careers. AMERINDA actively promotes the indigenous perspective in the arts to a broad audience through the creation of new work in contemporary art forms: visual, literary, performing and media. This includes producing Native theater. We proudly celebrated our 25th Anniversary in 2012.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
DF: I identify as Osage and Cherokee-enrolled Osage and my Cherokee heritage is documented as well. I was an early artist in the New York Movement in Contemporary Native Arts and my entire life’s work has been grounded in the contemporary Native Arts community.
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?
DF: Right after civil rights and social justice movements there was genuine interest in Native Theater. Initially it was perceived as ‘experimental’ primarily because it was new and unknown. But the political and economic environment began to change fairly quickly and so did the support and interest in Native Theater. After that artists could still present work but in ‘alternate’ spaces. It follows that the artists themselves were treated as ‘exotic.’ Now the paradigm has changed again, we are back where we started before people were supposedly liberated. European-American artists can create a racially charged musical treating the slaughter of the Native people as a joke, and have it accepted as a viable form of entertainment but Native theater is still unrecognized.
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?
DF: I believe we do because I believe in stories.—everyone’s stories. The way we get great art from anyone is by the artist having the opportunity to continue working at their craft. Great theater comes from your heart…but to know your heart you have to live your life. As Native people we have an opportunity to tell a much richer story about ourselves than someone else does. As you add all the other artists to the production process it only deepens the experience if they are Native. I am always aware how an audience is naturally drawn to a work of art that is presented as Native, when Native people do it and when someone outside the culture produces it.
JL: What is the current state of Native Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
DF: Native theater is under resourced and under recognized. At the same time there is a lot going on with different Native theater groups in different parts of the country. Over the last twenty-years, several Native playwrights have emerged with some good work, the battle for Native actors playing Native roles has been won…with the exception of Johnny Depp playing “Tonto”, and we are developing leadership; directors are emerging, and there are a few Native producing entities. It also seems that part of the process for artists of color is realizing that you can be unselfconscious and eclectic about what inspires you. Once arrived at this awareness it liberated Native people to be contemporary theater artists.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
DF: We need support; financial, artistic, and physical…and opportunity. Partnerships can help—but ones where both partners are equal. Theaters can partner with Native theater groups by hosting them and providing the resources for the Native theater to present work that is written, directed and performed by Native people.
Diane Fraher, Writer/Director, likes to partner with Native Nations to make community-based films that engage Native people at all levels of development and creation. In her words, her films “explore the struggle of Native Americans to identify with traditional values within the context of modern society.” An enrolled Member of Osage Nation with documented Cherokee heritage as well, she is one of the artists who formed the New York Movement in Contemporary Native Arts (1972-Present), the only such Native American arts movement in the United States, outside of Santa Fe, NM. Her first feature-length narrative film, The Reawakening, was the first feature film written and directed by a Native woman and wholly produced by Native people. Ms. Fraher has received fellowships and individual artist grant awards from ABC New Talent Development Program, Jerome Foundation, National Geographic All Roads Film Project, New York State Council on the Arts-Individual Artist Program, and Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media, The Yip Harburg Foundation.
In 1987, Ms. Fraher founded American Indian Artists Inc., (AMERINDA) New York, NY, a community based multi-arts organization which provides programs and services to emerging and established Native American artists. Her work with AMERINDA has been supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Ford Foundation, Joan Mitchell Foundation, Nathan Cummings Foundation, New York Community Trust, NEA, NYSCA and Rockefeller Brothers Fund among others.
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