Post image for A Question of Being

(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 blog salon: Native Theatre series

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

WILLIAM S. YELLOW ROBE, JR.: I’m an enrolled member of the Assiniboine Tribe of the Fort Peck Indian reservation in northeastern Montana.  I’ve been working in regional theater for roughly over twenty five years, first as an actor and then a playwright, and as a director. I’ve also taken on the task of being an educator, lecturer, and supporter of Native Tribal Theaters and the artists who create and maintain it.

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

WSYRJR:  I’ve found that the whole concept of “identity” is misleading.  Native Tribal people for centuries have been told who they are, how they are supposed to act, speak, dress, and value.  I was taught very early in my life who and what I was by my parents, grandparents, and community.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have a sense of clarity from my community and environment at an early age.  I am of mix blood, both Assiniboine and African American.  I found that with this being I have, I have experienced both of the extreme reactions from several communities, from hate to pity.

The theme of Identity is supposedly the basis of all my work according to the would-be experts and authorities of Native Tribal theater.  I’m always laughing when I hear them talk of my work because the focal point of the work is humanity.  The struggle of nurturing and maintaining one’s humanity in a very violent, chaotic, and fearful society is ongoing and very real.  Native Tribal people have always had a sense of whom and what we are even after so many years of outsiders telling us what we are, both romantically and other misconceptions. What is important is the ‘Native heart’, and to make sure it is functioning and strong.  This is the crux of the work I do.

I recently did an interview and the non-Native reporter kept on insisting that all Native Tribal plays deal with identity and kept pursuing that agenda throughout the interview until I finally took one of my plays, gave it to the reporter to read, and asked the reporter to identify their claim.  They couldn’t.  This whole issue is another way of pigeon holing Native Tribal playwrights as in terms of the only theme we are writing about.

It isn’t a question of ‘identity’ but a question of ‘being’.

My last name would automatically suggest an identity.  The themes and subject matter of my works never reflect the romanticism or mysticism mainstream audiences expect from a Native American playwright.  There is something odd in that, as well.  When I started teaching earlier in my career I wasn’t regarded as a playwright, but as a story teller.  Apparently I didn’t have the right to consider myself a playwright. I had never suggested the title of ‘storyteller’ it just automatically came from those who were hiring.  The concepts and themes of some of my plays are easily identifiable to a Native Tribal audience, but also by Tribal audiences around the world.

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?

WSYRJR: I find many theater institutions, mainly professional and semi-professional, dread the idea of dealing with Native Tribal concepts and issues.  This is due to their own lack of knowledge.  They might have large Native Tribal populations in their areas but in their season there is no reflection of that identity, or acknowledgement of the Native Tribal community, or communities.

There is a fear to engage the many serious issues facing the Native Tribal communities.  It would be a major wake up call to discover your are either prompting the change, or helping the problems grow.

For myself I was very fortunate to have many other professional Native Tribal writers who supported my work when I first started. They include James Welch, Joy Harjo and Louis Owens.  The other Native Tribal theater artists were supportive of my work include Hanay Geiogamah, John Kaufmann, and Bruce Miller.  In main stream theater the people who were supportive of my work included Oskar Eustis, the late Curt Dempster, Tim Bond, Roberta Uno, Lou Bellamy and Bob Jaffe.

All these artists I have mentioned helped and supported the validation of my work.  I have always stood by my work when some people told me I shouldn’t write about my experiences and themes because there was no commercial market for the works.  These people who valued monetary status were right.  I was very thankful to find the above mentioned people (Hanay, Oskar, Curt, Bob, and Roberta, etc.) and their perceptions that gave me the sense there is value to art other than monetary value, and it was what I was taught growing up.

There are very few venues for my plays.  I remember working with some LORT theaters and being told; “You are the only Native playwright we know,” or “There aren’t many Native playwrights out there.”  That was in the 1980’s.  This is partially true.  What it told me today is that the Native Tribal playwrights are out there, but within the communities.  Native Tribal theaters and artists suffer the common element as their communities, they are often ignored, unseen, and unheard.   I never went looking for specific venues that dealt with “Native American” plays.  I submitted my work to everybody, regardless if they had the notation in the Dramatist’s SourceBook or not regarding accepting “Native American” work.  I think in the eighties there were only six theater companies that were listed?

Doors of theater weren’t always shut, but sometimes in some regions, the doors of the fort were to remain closed no matter what.  The Native Tribal voices were not of commercial value as the appropriation of other cultural and spiritual elements are today.

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?

WSYRJR: It isn’t a question of ‘do we need’.  I think because certain sections of communities have been ignored for so many years they’ve created their own venues and vessels to share their work.  Native Tribal theater is very much in a growth today.  There are so many community Tribally based theater companies today.  This is very exciting.  You have Red Eagle Soaring, American Indian Repertory, New Native Theater, KwKw usm Theater, and all the Tribal community schools and colleges who are doing theater.  They aren’t meeting the needs to be considered ‘Equity’ classifications so they aren’t going to be considered ‘professional’ but the work and desire is very elevated.  That is what I’ve been doing in the last five years is working with communities that have been ignored and watching them take the steps to create their own venues.

The concept these communities are asking for charity is completely wrong.  Native Tribal communities have been taking care of themselves for many years.  The other stereotype they are now facing is the belief that all Native Tribal communities are enjoying the benefits of having a ‘casino’ which is outrageous and near the point of being racist.  Many Native Tribal communities are struggling with economic, environmental, educational, and political problems and have very little money for theater.  This is reality.  Those Native Tribal people who are doing theater are finding the means to support the work.

It would be wonderful to see a program to support these community projects, but again, many of the Native Tribal theaters do not have that ‘Equity’ classification of being a professional theater.  In long term, the classifications we have in LORT and other branches of professional theaters are hurting the smaller theaters in the regions. When I say regions I mean not only the reservations, but urban areas as well, and non-reservation communities.

The importance of having your story told by the breathe of the community your story is based in is empowerment.  To have play read by Native Tribal people, not the ‘I think I’m of Native ancestry’, but people from the communities, is an incredible experience.  I will request a multi-cultural cast if I can’t get a full Native cast.  Because , in reflection, as Native Tribal people, we are related to the world.  We have relations all over the world.  I find this question ironic because some other playwrights never have to face this issue, but since most theater companies are run from one perspective, casting, directing, etc., is never a problem or an issue.  I remember working at the former Seattle Group Theater in Seattle, WA, and receiving calls from the TV and movie production companies in the area asking for “Indian” actors.  When I asked, “What tribe,” the person on the other end would become exasperated and say, “Indian!  I don’t know what Tribe!”  This is what mainstream theater doesn’t understand and falls into this trap every time.  In the long run, the overall goal is education; education of not only the community, but the playwright themselves.

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

WSYRJR: As mentioned previously, the growth of community based productions.  I have witnessed and been informed of Native Tribal communities doing productions of the stories that are relevant and important to the community.  This includes stories that are from the strong oral tradition to the personal performances.  Sadly, I believe organizations such as TCG, or larger LORT theaters aren’t even aware of what is being done within the local Native Tribal communities, again, a reflection of the Native Tribal communities themselves.

For me, this is a sign of great hope that Native Tribal communities are now taking control of presenting their own voices on stage.  The days of colonial paternalism are passing to the side.  In the old days you would have ‘scouts’, then ‘Indian agents’, as the buffers between the Native Tribal communities and the mainstream communities.  Those old elements are slowly fading as Native Tribal communities are taking control of their breathe and voices.

It is a great time of Native Tribal Theater.

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

WSYRJR: One step would be is to become aware.  Find out what these issues are that many Native Tribal people are discussing. The issue of Blood Quantum is a very heated and a political issue but the whole theory and implementation of the “Blood Quantum” wasn’t introduced by the Native Tribal people themselves, but it was forced upon them.  Find out why there is a high rate of poverty.  The issues of lack of health, education, and housing are pressing issues, but need to be addressed.  These are very complex issues and not just handled or solved by the common statement of; “Why don’t you leave the reservation.”   Remember, not all Native Tribal live on reservations, or off reservation, or in urban areas alone, but are in all communities across the country—even at Wal-mart, aye!

The biggest issue is communication, or the lack of communication.  “We are both speaking English but it means something different to the other,” is what I heard an elder say one day.  It is rare when a major theater house reaches out to the Native Tribal communities. Some of have made the attempt and I very much applaud them, such as: Penumbra Theater, Ensemble Studio Theater, the former Seattle Group Theater, Oklahoma Repertory Theater Company, and recently, The Public Theater.

One attempt to change this is collaboration.  Collaborations could be a great start of building a new path for two worlds.  The other issue is to start to learn who you are talking with.  Not all people who claim to be representative of the Native Tribal communities are who they say they are.  This takes education and time, something that a lot of folks in our society do not want to do, but if you want to build better communities it has to be done.

In closing, a thank you to all the Native Tribal artists, theaters and communities who allowed me to work with them and giving me that honor–Pinamaya.

William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine Tribe.  He has two anthologies of his work and they are; “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers; and Other Untold Stories,” and “Where the Pavement Ends: New Native Drama.”  He is a company member of the Penumbra Theater Company, St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Ensemble Studio Theater, New York, New York.  He is on the Advisory Board of Red Eagle Soaring of Seattle, Washington, and the Missoula Writer’s Collaborative, Missoula, Montana.  He is a Faculty Affiliate of the University of Montana’s Creative Writing Department and a Libra Professor at the University of Maine, Orono, Maine.

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.