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Reviewed by:
  • Off the Rails by Randy Reinholz
  • Heidi L. Nees
Off the Rails. By Randy Reinholz. Directed by Chris Anthony. Native Voices at the Autry, Los Angeles. 28 February 2015.

The Indian boarding school program, a weapon of cultural genocide wielded by the United States government into the twentieth century, is a part of history often ignored. Native Voices at the Autry, the only Equity theatre company devoted exclusively to creating new works by Native playwrights, exposed audiences to this past and explored its continued implications in Randy Reinholz’s Off the Rails. This adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure used the program as the backdrop for an exploration of cultural collisions in the American past and present.

Reinholz, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, chose to adapt Shakespeare’s problem play for its balance between serious matters and humor in order to call attention to issues of corruption and systemic injustice. The Vienna of Measure for Measure becomes Genoa, Nebraska, the site of an Indian industrial school, and Claudio becomes Momaday, a Pawnee boy who loves Caitlin, an Irish girl pregnant with their child. Angelo, the boarding school superintendent and surrogate authority figure, sentences Momaday to death for impregnating Caitlin out of Christian wedlock. Isabel, a Christian convert who is studying to be a teacher, intercedes on her brother’s behalf. Meanwhile, the townsfolk adjust to Angelo’s rule and prepare to audition for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, providing much of the piece’s humor.

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Isabel and Angelo played by Elizabeth Frances (Cherokee) and Michael Matthys in Off the Rails. (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

Reinholz’s script captures the complexities of cultural encounters in nineteenth-century Nebraska. The central conflict regarding Caitlin’s pregnancy [End Page 724]

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Momaday’s preparations. Front (l-r): Elizabeth Frances (Cherokee) as Isabel and Shaun Taylor-Corbett (Blackfeet) as Momaday. Back (l-r): Bernard Addison as Sheriff and Shyla Marlin (Choctaw) as Madame Overdone in Off the Rails. (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

[End Page 725]

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“Honor Song.” Center: Duane Minard (Yurok) as Grandfather and ensemble in Off the Rails. (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

underscores tensions between differing belief systems and the privileging of particular worldviews. Momaday and Caitlin believe that they were married under Pawnee tradition, a union not recognized by Angelo’s Christian law. Imprisoned within the walls of the boarding school (which also houses the jail), Momaday struggles with this cultural collision through monologue and a Pawnee lullaby. In the production a projected photograph of boarding school students kneeling for Christian prayer punctuated this confrontation.

The implications of this collision are also explored in gendered terms primarily via the Lakota-French Madame Overdone, who fights to regain her saloon after Angelo prohibits female-controlled establishments. Overdone also laments the physical violence inflicted on Native women by colonial powers: “I have seen the offspring of soiled doves, / Women rearing the issue of violence” (56). In another moment that reiterated the objectification of Native women, Angelo lustfully, then violently clutches Isabel’s hair while reminding her of her lack of agency under his rule: “my false outweighs your true” (48). Overdone’s dialogue speaks to continued sexual violence waged against Native women today that is often ignored by authorities, while superintendent Angelo’s actions and comments reveal the complicity of institutional forces/authorities in the perpetuation of such violence.

The play debates the consequences of assimilation as Isabel, who seeks change from within the power structure, argues, “I am still Pawnee. I am preparing to help the ‘people.’ This education will benefit them” (22). Momaday, however, chooses to retain Pawnee practices, often speaking his first language even though it is forbidden. In one of the most powerful moments of the production the imprisoned Momaday performed ceremonial preparations for his impending execution. Grandfather, who provided and preserved tribal histories and traditions in the world of the play, assisted him. The incorporation of Native languages, songs, dances, and ceremonial traditions served as acts of survivance—displaying not just survival, but also resistance—in confrontation with the Indian boarding school mantra “Kill the...


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pp. 724-727
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