(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion:--Mixed Race/Culture Theatre
JACQUELINE LAWTON: In your work as a theatre artist, do you self-identify closer to one race/culture over another? If so, why do you think that is? If not, how are you able to live in both worlds?
MADELINE SAYET: We all live in the same world and race is an artificial construct. Our cultures shape the way we perceive the stories within this one world that we all share. The many voices in my upbringing help me in my work by providing a complex sensitivity toward people’s grievances with one another. They do not divide me.
I am a Mohegan Indian, and a Jew. Neither is a “race.” So, what is it to ask if I identify more with one culture than another? Do I choose my mother over my father? Do I hide a part of my heart? It is important that children know that this confusion is beautiful and makes the world full.
Everyone is a mix of many things, and that is not new. My Mohegan ancestors were a mix of Mohegan, Pequot, and Narragansett. Love has never known such artificial borderlines.
We need to stop dividing the world and fill it with a multiplicity of stories instead.
Native Identity is more complex than an issue of “race.” Each Native Nation is a sovereign nation recognized under the constitution of the United States of America, as having its own separate laws, governance, and culture. So when I check the Native American “box” it is because I am an enrolled member of the Mohegan Tribe, a citizen of that Tribal Nation. Most American citizens do not know about Native sovereignty though, so it is a complex discussion for another time.
I work in Native Theatre because the road is long and I have spent more time on that path. I know the struggles and what steps need to be taken to curtail them. There are less of us to do the work of teaching. My ancestors can guide me from right here, in their ancestral homeland. But, to essentialize humanity is never the solution. I am grateful for the complex cultural awareness that disagreements between my family members brought me at a very young age. I am grateful that I know who I am and do not have to be scared by the imaginary lines. I can work on Jewish plays and Native plays and know that both resonate in my heart and history. Yet, when I work on Shakespeare, I am just as at home, because he was an artist writing about this one world we all share as human beings.
JL: As image makers and creators of narrative, theatre artists are in a position to define, influence and change what it means to be of mixed race in America. How do you feel the mixed race/culture experience has been presented in the American Theatre so far? (Have you experienced plays that are enlightening? Damaging? Or is there a complete absence of stories?)
MS: Theatre has a long road to undo the damage of ignoring mixed peoples on stage. I cannot tell you how many times a room of white men has smugly greeted me with the comment, “You don’t look Native American,” as if they could erase me that easily. As if there wasn’t a sovereign nation of Mohegan people in Connecticut who would endure, despite whatever stereotyping occurred on stage and screen.
Theatre that stereotypes Native Americans is still a constant problem on the American stage. Non-Native actors are still playing Native, bringing their biases to the work.
We create society, it is our job to educate, and when we negate human complexity onstage – the terrifying result is children being told they don’t exist because they are complex beautiful creatures made of hopes and dreams and not color lines.
JL: Do we need theatre organizations devoted to producing work by and about the mixed raced experience?
MS: Every community theatre should be devoted to its community. Every regional theatre should be devoted to its region. Every national theatre should be devoted to the nation. Complex humanity should not have to be a side step, to shun yet another group of people away. It is part of too many narratives to be continuously ignored. This next decade will show a strong upsurgence of theatre with mixed culture characters as our society reflects this more and more.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies who are interested in creating opportunities that reflect the experience/challenge perceptions of mixed race people in America?
MS: Let people tell you their stories, instead of making assumptions about them. One of my favorite audition practices is to have actors tell a story from their own life that relates to one of the characters. It makes the world muddy and rich, and suddenly the story is shifting into something deeper. Don’t spend your time trying to fill a series of niches, categorizing people. Make notes of your casting choices in every play, the protagonists in the scripts you choose, then look outside and consider whether or not your season reflects the world around you. If all the women and non-white characters are unintelligent or periphery – basically if your American stage still looks like it came from 1500s England, you have a problem.
JL: As an advocate of mixed race theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
MS: I am directing a new play by Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee) at 59e59 Theaters in NYC this January called Miss Lead, in which the protagonist’s family is mixed race. There are a variety of Native characters in this play and I can proudly say that they are all different and contemporary. Mixed race Native American characters are very rarely shown onstage because Native peoples are frequently depicted as if they were in the past. However, a very large portion of our community is mixed and this is reflected in the work of a lot of Native poets. The duality of having the blood of the colonizer coursing through your veins. The complex elements surrounding Native identity in Miss Lead make me hopeful for the development of more new Native theatre and American Theatre that guides us away from the stereotypes that reduce us all.
Madeline Sayet is a recipient of The White House Champion of Change Award for Native America for her work as a director, writer, performer, and educator. She is the Resident Artistic Director at AMERINDA (American Indian Artists) Inc., and the Artistic Director of The Mad & Merry Theatre Company. Recent directing credits include: Daughters of Leda (Dixon Place, Culture Project), The Tempest (Sylvester Manor, Brooklyn Lyceum), Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others (The Connelly Theater), Shades of Blue & Expecting Lila as part of Bottles on the Water (Drama Bookshop Theatre). Upcoming: Miss Lead by Mary Kathryn Nagle at 59e59, Loves Labours Lost (MMTC), The Powwow Highway (stage adaptation by William S Yellowrobe Jr. based on the novel by David Seals). BFA Theater, MA Arts Politics 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