An Authentic and Real Voice

by Vickie Ramirez

in Diversity & Inclusion

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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. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

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.

VICKIE RAMIREZ:  I’m a playwright.  I focus primarily on Native issues, but I have written a few non-specific pieces.

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

VR:  I’m half-Tuscarora/ half-Jamaican.  Our home was only five minutes away from my mother’s reservation, and we spent half our childhood running around on it, so I think my POV is primarily “NDN” (Indian).  I do love and embrace my father’s culture as well, though, so I’m truly a mixed-blood.  (In my house, there’s a little curry goat to go with the corn-soup!)

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?

VR:  It’s a bit of a Catch-22.  I have had opportunities that I’m sure wouldn’t have been available to me if I weren’t Native, but on the other hand, that can be pretty much it for us.  We get amazing opportunities for development but quite often there’s nowhere else for the piece to go after that.  We don’t have too many venues that are willing to risk a full production of a Native play.  If something gets done it’s usually to commemorate some historic anniversary or museum opening.

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?

VR:  I would love to say no and the ultimate ideal is to come together all as citizens of the world, but that’s just not realistic.  We need racial, ethnic and gender based theater companies…just to ensure that the work gets created and that the voice created is authentic and real. Otherwise we’re at the mercy of other artists without outside POV’s with the result being that we end up as a trope (e.g. “Simple yet Wise”), in a story that has been prompted by outside circumstances (e.g. Columbus Day or the dedication of the Crazy Horse monument). Believe it or not, there are NDN “kitchen sink” dramas out there, and they’re definitely worth a watch. When we work on our own stories we’re able to present more nuanced and real characters, prompted by our own circumstances.  That being said, I’m not at all averse to working with other theater artists.  Mixed Phoenix just produced one of my plays and we ended up working with an all Native cast except for one actor from the Latino Community.  It was a wonderful experience because he was very open and the cast was very open and we ended up learning a lot from each other, which just informed the piece even more.  Ultimately, I think we would all love to invite artists from outside the community to collaborate with us, but we need to “set the bar” of who we are first.

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

VR: I believe we’re building and finally getting past the stage where we are solely a museum act.  A lot of Native pieces have been about historic events in the past, and quite often as a result, the venues that were primarily interested in our pieces were museums or schools.   Not that I disdain those venues – I don’t.   It’s just that the main reason I love theater is that I love being entertained.  Native Theater is capable of that as well, but people tend to see our stories as education.  We’re breaking out of that and getting more and more people to come to see our shows just to hear a story – thanks to the labors of Native Voices in LA, Rhianna Yazzie’s New Native Theater in Minneapolis, American Indian Repertory Theater at Haskell University, and, Amerinda, The Eagle Project, Spiderwoman Theater and Mixed Phoenix in New York City.

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

VR: If I had my way, there would be more theaters doing what The Public Theater has.  They have been very supportive in New York City. Not only have they welcomed us in their development programs, (both Mary Kathryn Nagle and I are alums of their Emerging Writers Program), but they have partnered with Amerinda to present readings and a recent production of Thieves by Bill Yellowrobe.  Ideally, I would love that to be the standard, but I know that resources are tight and we’re all under budget constraints.  I guess I would just ask for larger theater companies to remember us, when they’re doing diversity talkbacks or presentations, or even festivals.  Quite often I’ll see something labeled as “diverse” but we won’t see any Native involvement.  Usually the argument is “I didn’t even know there was a Native Theater in town” well, there may not be – but quite often there are.  People just forget to add us to the Google search.    By the way, this opportunity has been wonderful.  Thank you for letting me rant.  Nya: weh.

Vickie Ramirez is a Tuscarora (Six Nations of the Grand River) playwright and alum of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writer’s Group 2009. She is also a founding member of Chukalokoli Native Theater Ensemble and Amerinda Theater. Her work has been seen at The Public Theater, The Flea, Amerinda, The Roundabout Theater’s Different Voices Program, Ensemble StudioTheater, BOO-Arts, Mixed Phoenix Theater Company, the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the 52nd Street Project.  She was a featured playwright at the 2010 Santa Fe Theatre Festival (Smoke).  Her play, Standoff at Hwy#37, was commissioned by Ohio Northern University’s Ninth Annual Theatre Festival and will be presented this spring at Native Voices at the Autry’s Festival of New Plays in Los Angeles.  Plays include: Tobacco is Sacred-That’s Why It Kills You, Standoff at Hwy#37, Smoke,  Ashes, Humans, The Varlettes vs. the Space Rock, Case 24: Roswell, NM and Leona by the Bayou. Screenplays include: MonkeyDog, Rachel vs. The Little Warriors and Lotto Munney. Honors include: 2009/2010 NYC Urban Artists Fellowship, 2010 NYSCA Individual Artist Award.

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.