- The Native Plays of Lynn Riggs (Cherokee) and the Question of “Race”-specific Casting
The Color-Blind Bind and Native American Representation
The tensions surrounding color-blind casting perhaps came to a head in the infamous 1997 debate between August Wilson and Robert Brustein at Town Hall in New York City. Many Native American playwrights and directors reflect a similar position to Wilson’s, promoting the necessity of casting Native actors to play Native characters. There are, of course, myriad political and historical reasons behind this position, among them the legacy of red-face performance in theatre, film, and television and the pervasive mainstream impression that all Indians must be played by non-Indian actors, because all Indians are dead.
One strategy for actively rejecting misrepresentation and the myth of the vanished Indian is to write contemporary roles for Native American actors. Hanay Geiogamah, Kiowa-Delaware playwright and director, for example, stresses the importance of American Indian artists to “establish a strong identity base in their work to help confront and clarify endless confusions resulting from non-Indians’ beliefs and misperceptions of Indian life” (163). Plays such as Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots by Monique Mojica, Geiogamah’s Foghorn, and Spiderwoman Theater’s Winnetous’s Snake-Oil Show from Wigwam City, among many other Native works, call for casts of Native actors to be successful in their goals of deconstructing popular misrepresentations and stereotypes of Indians.
Although various circumstances arise which lead to color-blind casting (particularly in educational and community theatre or in professional productions of the antiquated European canon), most companies maintain the rule that actors cast in works that directly reflect racial or ethnic experience should identify racially with their characters and ideally look the part (Sun 87–88). One result of this race-cautious and phenotype-bound approach to casting has been the great scarcity of Native American productions, despite the wealth of Native plays in print.
The historical, political, cultural, and aesthetic underpinnings of identity politics in performance, minority (mis-)representation, color-blind casting, and the disproportionately low number of productions by and about nonwhites make taking a stance on this matter tremendously complicated. In his 2013 article “The Welcome Table: Casting for an Integrated Society,” Daniel Banks reports on the inequity of professional casting, citing a five-year study of almost 500 shows by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. It uncovered that between the 2006–07 and 2010–11 seasons, 80 percent of all shows in the New York area were cast with actors who identified as either white or of European heritage (2). Banks’s essay provides a critical point of departure for a difficult though important discussion about casting in the growing field of Native American theatre, and at the same time engenders a renewed interest in diverse casting practices in American theatre at large. The contemporary (and potentially dangerous) rhetoric of “post-racialism” in the United States must be accompanied by analysis: How does imagining that our culture is “past race” impact our theatrical productions? In what ways can we as theatre practitioners, critics, and educators reflect, refract, or [End Page 63] reject this concept? How does incorporating Native American performances and performers, which are largely omitted from popular and regional theatrical repertoires, help to reinvigorate the discourse on US ethnic theatre, casting practices, and “particularist” theatre and politics?
Riggs as a Site for Rethinking (Native American) Casting Practices
This essay analyzes some of the cultural, political, and practical considerations of “color-conscious” or “traditional” casting in Native American theatre through the work of Cherokee playwright Lynn Riggs, who identified as mixed-blood. Two of Riggs’s works include themes, characters, settings, and structural dramatic elements that reflect what Christy Stanlake calls “Native dramaturgy” (23) and Jace Weaver considers illustrative of Riggs’s “responsibility to that (Cherokee) part of his heritage” (1997, 97). Riggs sets both Green Grow the Lilacs (1931) and The Cherokee Night (1932) in Indian Territory: the former arguably contains Native presence, staging the cultural issues surrounding the transition between Indian Territory and Oklahoma’s annexation; the latter directly explores Cherokee identity and themes and includes in its cast of characters both...