- Native North American Theater in a Global Age: Sites of Identity Construction and Transdifference
To call Birgit Däwes's almost five-hundred-page study of contemporary Native theater "comprehensive" is to understate the encyclopedic nature of this book. It comes as a welcome addition to a field still working to establish and frame a scholarly conversation in Native American performance studies. Däwes fills gaps in the field with this monograph derived from her 2006 dissertation and provides enough thought-provoking material to fuel several different incarnations of such a conversation. The overarching focus of the book is on identity construction and the "transdifferent" stances taken by Indigenous playwrights and actors as they negotiate "globalized times of shifting national and international borderlines" (7). Defined by scholars at the University of Erlangen at the start of this decade, the concept of "transdifference" seeks to transcend the binary systems that determine identity and acknowledge how individuals often occupy "self-reflexive strategic positions" that combine sometimes contradictory alliances into a multilayered web (9). As Däwes points out, such a concept applies nicely to Native artists and intellectuals who, even before contact with Europeans, "syncretically mix[ed] traditional, locally specific cultural heritage with pan-tribal" or intertribal elements (10).
Native North American Theater in a Global Age starts with reviews of current debates over terminology and methodology. By positing an expansive definition of Native theater tied to authorship and a play's provenance, Däwes makes room in her study for all "performance events [. . .] authorized—regardless of their themes—by a Native American or First Nations individual or group" (88). Such a definition embraces multiple styles (from performance art to opera), audiences, and purposes, as well as helps us to move beyond the circular question of "authenticity." Moreover, it includes performances from the past that might not match more [End Page 98] rigid definitions of drama, such as Te Ata's storytelling and Emily Pauline Johnson's solo performance poetry. Highlighting such a lineage reinforces the persistence and continuation of Native dramatists, providing a counterhistory to both the vanishing Indian myth and the belief that Native theater first began in the late twentieth century.
After her extensive review of terminology, secondary source material, and the postcolonial and poststructuralist roots of her approach, Däwes turns to her readings of twenty-five plays from the last forty years. Even though all of these plays have been performed publicly and their scripts are readily available, many have not received significant critical attention. Structurally, Däwes organizes her analyses in the form of a web so that she might trace "widening layers of identity constructs" (11). Beginning with the human body, Däwes then travels outward through layers of family and kinship, intra- and intertribal communities, and physical and metaphysical topographies to highlight how the dialogue, characters, and setting for these plays exhibit the multiple subject positions of transdifference. Däwes does not use the same plays to explore each layer of identity, but instead she selects three to five plays as examples for each. What results is a well-researched and insightful, but necessarily brief, view of each play.
One of the most successful moves that Däwes repeats is outlining two conflicting positions that could apply to how each play constructs identity and then negotiating a nonbinary resolution. For instance, in analyzing Spiderwoman Theater's Sun Moon and Feather (1981), Däwes recognizes the larger political and social communities that have influenced Gloria Miguel, Lisa Mayo, and Muriel Miguel's irreverent brand of activist theater. Because their early work was born in the crucible of the experimental Lower East Side art scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Sun delivers a "radically dialogic, transnational stance" that challenges an audience's desire for easy categories of identity (221). At the same time, Däwes identifies indigeneity in the sisters' references to "the timeless, mythical, and playfully humorous backgrounds of their individual [Kuna and Rappahannock] heritage...