Studies in American Indian Literatures 16.1 (2004) 32-61
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An Ensemble Performance of Indians in the Act
Native Theater Past and Present
Craig Howe, Ceyakton Institute
Dean Rader, University of San Francisco
LeAnne Howe, Choctaw, author, playwright
"Indians in the Act," a panel presentation was conceived as a theatrical moment, an academic play in four acts beginning with historical essays on Lakota performance and culminating with discourse on contemporary Native theater. Our panel performed at the Native American Literature Symposium on November 30, 2000, at 7P.M. in the all-inclusive resort, Inter-Continental Hotel, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. What is presented here—for the page—is not accurate in the sense in which "performance" is used by academics. The title has been slightly altered. Edits made. The performance, while relevant to the conference, may not at first be obvious to a reader.
Translating the oral tradition, or a Native performance has always proved difficult. Oral stories seem stilted on the page and often require a great deal of teacher preparation for students to become fully engaged in the material. We encountered similar difficulties in reproducing "Indians in the Act" for SAIL. We had to remove most of the humorous asides and the singing by certain members of the cast (panel presenters). We also recognize that readers will just have to imagine our big finale when the entire audience on November 30 broke out into song: a parody of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Our purpose was to create [End Page 32] an interactive experience so scholars of American Indian literature could become "framed" as active participants in an oral event. During the performance the cast could sense that our audience was responding emotionally, spiritually (read psychologically, if you must), physically, and intellectually. Admittedly, by 9P.M. many conference attendees were smashed, but the cast of "Indians in the Act" continues to revel in the belief that the audience's euphoria was a result of the performance.
Our unconventional panel performance tried to demonstrate how much "insider knowledge" is necessary to engage an audience in an oral event. We also wanted our audience to consider that within tribal cultures, there are many "performative acts" that can be thought of as historical antecedents of contemporary Native theater. Finally we suggest that a great deal of cultural engagement has been sustained by American Indian communities and passed on to contemporary tribal storytellers. Just how signals and codes are passed on, and whether they indeed bind a particular tribal culture over time became part of the continuing dialogue after our panel presentation. What follows is our presentation on historic Native acts and their contemporary counterpart, Native theater.
We wish to thank Gwen Griffin, English professor at Mankato State University for her improvisation in bringing Dorothyhontas to life in our staged reading of a scene from the play The Shaman of OK, at the end of "Indians in the Act."
It is the last day of November 2000. The smell of the ocean hangs heavily in the conference room at the all-inclusive resort, the Inter-Continental Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. The audience wants to leave and walk along the beach and feel the warm sand and water between their toes. For some reason they stay. The performance benefits from a pared-down style of presentation. Scene changes are done rapidly, (no blackouts) forcing the panel to be actor-driven. More precisely, academic-driven.
LEANNE HOWE: It is my pleasure to introduce Harvey Markowitz, singer, actor, and performer, born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. [End Page 33] He graduated from high school in Memphis, Tennessee; drove a truck for Crown Electric Company. His first commercial recordings were "That's All Right, Mama," and "Blue Moon of Kentucky" for Sun Records. He appeared in several films including Jailhouse Rock, 1957, and in 1963, Girls, Girls, Girls. (Audience laughs and realizes—at last—that Harvey Markowitz's biography sounds...