#InsteadofRedface - performance: Examining Indigenous America’s contributions to theater

Idyllwild Art’s Native American Arts Festival takes center stage this month. Photo Credit RJ Muna

From Sunday, June 23, to Friday, June 28, the Idyllwild Arts Summer Program will write another chapter in its history of engagement with Native American Arts by hosting the Native American Arts Festival. The history is as old as the Summer Program itself, which dates to 1950.
This year, indigenous theater is explored through performances ranging through song and dance.
Events remain free and open to the public at the festival, about which Heather Companiott, long-time director of the Summer Program’s Adult Arts Center of the Native American Program and Festival, and Native American Arts Coordinator Shaliyah Ben (Navajo), could talk for hours.
Companiott is proudest of the festival’s “unique emphasis on education,” while Ben expresses excitement and hope that the week’s dialogues will produce new works by these leading artists, as well as long-lasting friendships.
This summer, theater professionals highlight the festival’s honor roll of artist/educators.
The week will begin with a welcoming at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, in the IAF Theatre by Chuna McIntyre, Yup’ik cultural advisor, artist and performer, and Director of Nunamta (Of Our Land) Yup’ik Eskimo Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the moving story of how the Sun and moon were positioned in the Yup’ik cosmos.
At 7 p.m. Monday in Parks Exhibition Center, the exhibition “Stages of Engagement: Indigenous Bodies in Colonial Theatre Tradition” opens, and Idyllwild welcomes back Asa Benally (Navajo), an Idyllwild Arts Academy graduate who went on to Yale Drama School’s M.F.A. program. Today, Benally lives and works in New York, designing costumes for theatrical productions and dreaming of designing for Wagner’s Ring Cycle: “Four operas telling the tale of the rise and fall of the Gods.”
Tuesday through Thursday at noon in the Krone Library, audiences can enjoy the Michael Kabotie Lecture Series. Each lecture looks at a different facet of Indigenous involvement in theater. On Tuesday, Dr. Bethany Hughes (Choctaw) of the University of Michigan speaks on “Indigenous Theater: Context and Content,” examining how aesthetic and legal performances of Native American identity shape the Native American experience.
Wednesday’s lecture features Larissa Fasthorse (Sicangu Lakota). In “Beyond Decolonizing: Indigenizing American,” Fasthorse will share her work as a playwright and choreographer to create spaces that embrace a wider and more culturally diverse audience.
Award-winning director, writer and actor Madeline Sayet (Mohegan), recipient of the White House Champion of Change Award for Native America, lectures on “Indigenous Shakespeare” on Thursday. Like Asa Benally, Sayet is fascinated by opera. Her 2015 direction of Mozart’s The Magic Flute won praise as “effortlessly transparent and almost weightless” by The New York Times and “enchanting” by The Wall Street Journal.
Another can’t-miss event takes place on the festival’s last evening at 7 p.m. Friday, June 28, in the IAF Theatre, with a staged reading of playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Fairly Traceable by the Autry Museum of the American West’s Native Voices theater company. As the country’s only Equity company devoted exclusively to producing new work by Native American, Alaska Native and First Nations playwrights, Native Voices at the Autry Museum’s mission is as distinctive as that of the Idyllwild Arts Native American Arts Festival.
Jon Lawrence Rivera directs Fairly Traceable. Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the play follows a young Ponca man and Chitimacha woman as they balance personal and career ambitions with advocacy for the environment and care for loved ones. Nagle’s romantic comedy reveals the culpability of big oil, corporate polluters and climate change deniers in environmental disasters.
Companiott has been building and maintaining the festival’s unique identity for almost 30 years. She doesn’t expect to continue for another 30. Yet after working with the program for that long, she can still call it “exciting” because of the importance of this ongoing dialogue about Native American culture and its contested place within the wider American culture.
Come to the Native American Arts Festival and join the conversation.

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