Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Native Theater at NMAI

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) works in collaboration with the indigenous peoples of the Americas to protect and foster indigenous cultures, reaffirm traditions and beliefs, encourage contemporary artistic expression, and provide a forum for indigenous voices. In the spirit of this mission, the NMAI aims to become the nation’s premiere institution for showcasing Native American performing arts. Although The Conversion of Ka‘ahumanu is the first self-produced Native play at the NMAI in Washington, the museum has had successful seasons of bringing Native theater companies to our audiences. The first performance at the Mall museum was in December 2005. On tour from Bogotá, Colombia, Vientro Teatro presented Pamuri Mahse, a spectacularly masked and costumed mythical mask ceremonial dance drama. The company retold creation stories and myths of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region of Colombia and featured a talkback after the play with guest collaborators from the Uitoto tribe.

The NMAI’s theater programming aims to educate through entertainment. Many visitors do not realize the diversity of Native peoples in North, Central, and South America. Our challenge as presenters is to be fair and inclusive, so we select programs that reflect indigenous communities from across the entire Western hemisphere. The NMAI’s Rasmuson theater has hosted performances from across the hemisphere in a broad range of genres and styles: Ballet Folklorico Nicaraguense performed El Gueguence, one of the oldest indigenous theatrical/dance works of the Western hemisphere; Wampanoag culture bearer Tobias Vanderhoop introduced audiences to the Wampanoag understanding of giving thanks through story, song, drumming, and dance in A Wampanoag Thanksgiving; Canadian choreographer Santee Smith (Mohawk) presented a contemporary dance piece, Here on Earth, that explored the spiritual connection to the land, earth as living organism, earth as Mother, and earth as sacred (Image courtesy of Kaha:wi Dance Theatre).

Theater programs at the NMAI tell stories that often stand in contrast to mainstream versions of history. Diane E. Benson’s one-woman play, When My Spirit Raised Its Hands: The Story of Elizabeth Peratrovich and Alaskan Civil Rights, presented the story – little-known outside of Alaska – of the Alaskan civil rights movement. William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. (Assiniboine) participated in the presentation of his play, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, which explores the struggles of a mixed American Indian and African American family who experience racism on a Montana reservation. Audiences remarked that they were intrigued by both stories, which they had never heard before.

In the realm of theatre, the NMAI’s paramount concern is seeking plays that speak with a Native voice. Most plays presented here not only speak with a Native voice but are written by Native voices. An exception to this way of proceeding was the presentation of Perseverance Theatre’s Macbeth. While living in southeastern Alaska, the play’s director, Anita Maynard-Losch, noted striking similarities between Scottish and Tlingit cultures and created a production that used Tlingit-inspired sets and costumes and incorporates language, music, and dance from this rich and well-preserved culture (Image courtesy of Perseverance Theatre).

This spring, in addition to The Conversion of Ka‘ahumanu, the NMAI is pleased to present two cabarets by Canadian playwright, novelist, and children’s author, Tomson Highway (Cree). The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito is a one woman show, featuring Canadian singer and actor Patricia Cano, which tells the life story of a young mosquito from northern Manitoba named Mary Jane, who also happens to be the only mosquito in the history of the world without wings! Rose, the third installment in Highway’s “rez” cycle, is a large cast musical set on the fictional Wasaychigan Hill Reserve in 1992. Violence against women is a powerful issue in the play as the battle for the future of the community builds to its shattering climax. Both cabarets are presented with piano, sax, and singer.

Mary Jane Mosquito will be performed Friday, May 1st at 10:30 am Saturday May 2nd at 12:00 pm. Rose will be performed on Friday May 1st at 7:30 pm and will be followed by a presentation of Mary Jane Mosquito.

We look forward to seeing you at these exciting events and future theatrical programming at the NMAI!

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