On March 28th, 2015, I had the opportunity to watch excerpts of five plays written and performed by amazingly talented people at the First Wisconsin Native Playwright Festival, which was co-sponsored by The Oneida Arts Program and The College of Menominee Nation Theatre Department with funding from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Wisconsin Arts Board, and The State of Wisconsin.
The Festival, which was held at the Oneida Parish Hall in Oneida, Wisconsin, not only allowed the playwrights to demonstrate their talents, but also gave them the opportunity to compete to have their completed play be fully produced at the soon-to-be-completed Cultural Heritage Grounds at Oneida in August 2015. The winner was determined through a combination of audience voting and judging by Michelle Danforth, Marketing and Tourism Director for The Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, and Stephen Rupsch, Theatre Studies Faculty at St. Norbert College.
Each of the five play excerpts, performed as staged readings by volunteer actors, was fascinating in concept, and all but one dealt directly with issues concerning native peoples, including the generational trauma of the Boarding Schools: “The Pissing Cat” by Rebecca Burr (Mohican), everyday contemporary life on the reservation: “Rez Play” by Kanatihal Hill (Oneida) and “W.O.N.E” by Christopher Powless (Oneida), and the role of money and property on a pre casino-era reservation: “A Summer Round Dance” by Dawn Walschinski (Oneida).
The fifth play “Deeper Meaning” by Martin Prevost (Oneida), was the outlier in terms of subject material, but the creepy, possibly murderous professor character (played with aplomb by Burton Arthur) could easily have been a metaphor for the corrupting influence of European-style education on native peoples, but that interpretation is only speculation.
As one might expect from works that were not yet completed, there were weaknesses and gaps in the narratives, and the suspect acoustics of the hall occasionally drowned out the lines, but each of the plays, especially given the limited time that the writers, directors, and actors had to put together the performances, was worthy of a full staging.
The opening play, “The Pissing Cat”, was inspired by experiences that Burr’s grandmother had at boarding school, and centered on the trauma and bewilderment suffered by the main character, named “Princess” (Alice), who spends the action in a liminal state between life and death.
“Princess” encounters the ghost of a murdered friend named “Cornbread” (Christopher Powless), who keeps whispering in her ear, and “Princess” also hears voices from a head severed from a sculpture (Maxine). All the while, Burr’s creepily written narration/stage directions—which were given the proper gravitas by Larry Madden—maintain a sinister atmosphere.
Less supernaturally-oriented, but no less potent was “Rez Play”, which was Kanatihal Hill’s spontaneously-written take on the joys and crises of contemporary reservation life. “Rez Play”, in addition to providing the title line for this review, was a comedic, sometimes intense and direct conversation between three women who were all dealing with different daily struggles.
Each of the women lament the lack of tribally-run, culturally sensitive social services on the reservation which would help the people deal with the sorts of family, addiction, economic, and other issues in a way that was both helpful and culturally appropriate.
The women also talk about how the people don’t always do a good job at taking care of each other or themselves, which adds a level of depth and pathos to the play that balances the often raunchy (but effective) humor.
“W.O.N.E”, like “Rez Play” is a slice-of-life work that draws on Christopher Powless’ experiences as a long-time radio personality—he hosts “Kalihwiyo’se” for WPNE, the local Wisconsin Public Radio station.
The DJ character, “Ryan” (Louis Cotrell) navigates his way through wayward callers (Brian Moreno, Patricia Thomas) who are more interested in his personal life, or in concealing their own personal agendas than they are in dedicating songs like they are supposed to.
The interactions between Ryan and “Jelly” (Lloyd Frieson), are the highlights of this piece as they exchange snark and quips about their lives, relatives, and the rampaging rez dog who is biting white people.
As with “W.O.N.E”, “A Summer Round Dance” draws on every day experiences on the reservation, but Dawn Walschinski, the author of “Dance” does something unique by re-imagining “A Christmas Carol” as taking place on the Oneida Reservation during the 80s, before the casinos were built—Walschinski mentioned to me that the original idea for the play, as conceived by Hugh Danforth, was that it be set during the 1880s, but the playwright changed the setting to a reservation in the 1980s to make the play more accessible.
The Ebenezer character—played with suitable grinchiness by Christopher Powless—is the owner of a car repair shop that seems to be struggling to survive. He complains about “deadbeat” customers, and is annoyed that the Pow Wow is harming his business and distracting “Bob”, his main mechanic.
Walschinski’s changing of Scrooge’s “Are there no prisons” question to the charity workers to one asking “are there no boarding schools?” is humorous and traumatic in turns. The way the playwright turns the familiar text of Dickens into a commentary on reservation life is innovative and thrilling, and it’s no wonder that “A Summer Round Dance” was the Festival winner.
The final play of the evening, “Deeper Meaning”, was the anomaly of the Festival, centering as it did on an exceptionally creepy literary analysis of Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover”, in which the speaker of the poem and the professor are paralleled a little too closely. “Deeper Meaning” was certainly intense, especially in how the professor became more and more unhinged in his defense of Porphyria’s death and how he drew his student into almost agreeing with the speaker of the poem’s action.
The play, whatever else it was aiming for, did eerily lay bare what happens when a person’s life and art become too closely intertwined. The play also seemed to be a commentary on how literary interpretation can be a form of violence in and of itself.
I was also fortunate enough to speak briefly with the four playwrights who were present at the Festival—Prevost was the only one who was not in attendance—and they all were pleased and proud of their work. They gave me some valuable insights on their plays, both in how they were conceived and what the playwrights hoped to communicate.
One final note of praise should go out to the directors of each play: Nick Reynolds for “The Pissing Cat” and “A Summer Round Dance”; Dawn Walschinski for “Rez Play”; Elizabeth Rice for “W.O.N.E.”, and Jessica Buettner for “Deeper Meaning” as well as Ryan Winn, CMN Faculty and Artistic Director for helping to create such excellent performances.
All of the playwrights who participated in the Wisconsin Native Playwright Festival created works worthy of full production and displayed talent that we all should be on the lookout for.
Stay tuned for my review of August’s production of “A Summer Round Dance”.
Finally, special thanks go out to Beth Bashara, Director of the Oneida Nation Arts Program for her time and her valuable information, and the lovely people who provided the delicious food for the event.