The Indigenous Arts Festival at Fort Lewis College is a new venture with high ambition. Billed as the first annual, the festival took place over last weekend and now has to follow through next year with another art exhibit, speakers, and most important, at least two productions of new plays.
That’s just what Ginny Davis, chairwoman of the FLC Drama Department, intends.
“We’re already planning ahead,” Davis said. “And we hope to have the Art and Design Department work with us – an exhibit in the FLC Gallery, for example.”
“Resilience: Laugh, Cry, Persevere,” titled the 2018 festival. The visual art component was held in the lobby of the Drama Building, where works, particularly by senior communication design major Crystal Ashike, drew attention.
Two separate plays formed the theatrical component, each being the equivalent of a one-act play. One devise-theater piece by Natalie Benally and her company provided the theme for the festival. “I’M NATIVE AND ...” ran 50 minutes, and after intermission, a published play by Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota) unfurled in a series of short scenes over 67 minutes. Stylistically, the two works differed in genre, tone and presentation, but the common themes of identity, dislocation and community gave the evening a unified message.
Benally’s thoughtful director’s note explained her title and process: “I envisioned bringing together young people from all walks of life, Native and non-Native, to explore the complexity and richness that surrounds Native identity.”
Like many contemporary devised theater pieces, “I’M NATIVE AND ...” combines stories and experiences generated by the company. They take shape in short or long monologues, dramatized scenes, dance interludes, film projections and music.
Because Benally, an FLC alumna, enlisted Native and non-Native students, the work reflects various perspectives on identity – misunderstandings, dilemmas and epiphanies.
A formidable technical team came together to produce a tight, fast-moving, beautiful and evocative performance. The simple, abstract set suggested a mountain with a partially hidden moon. The mountain served as a backdrop and also a screen for film projections and back-lit human silhouettes that underscored the action on center stage. Film projections ranged widely from Native American dancers and singers to protest marches and single, yearning faces.
The 11-member acting company served the work admirably. Actors delivered individual stories and enlivened dramatic scenes. Sections easily flowed one into another with the help of musical transitions, making the whole work seamless.
The production is up for a spot at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival later in the year. As Davis wrote in the program: “By entering this production, our theater department is sharing in the KCACTF goals to recognize, reward and celebrate the exemplary work produced in college and university theaters across the nation.”
The second half of the festival program called on different skills and a turn toward realism. “Teaching Disco Square Dancing to Our Elders: A Class Presentation,” is a straight-forward drama about three Native American high school students. The title gives away the premise – preparing a class project for elders. Each of the students, Martin Leads To Water (Kieran Peck), Kenny Two Hawks (Evan Pappan) and Amanda Smith (Ashley Hunt) brought subtlety and solid timing skills to a play that unfolds moment by moment. Local actor Stephanie Poafpybilty played the role of Grandma Two Hawks, and the four joyously brought the somewhat predictable but satisfying conclusion to closure.
Realism and a multimedia devised work make for an odd pair, but it worked under the festival umbrella. Here’s to what the next one will bring.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.