From the Field

The State of Native Theater by Amanda Nita Luke

I see a bright future for Native Theater in this country. A future where theater telling Native stories is a regular occurrence in communities around the country. Where communities can come together to experience each other’s stories to gain empathy about each other’s struggles and encounter each other’s joys onstage. Sharing lived experiences is a basic tenet of being human. Since time immemorial, people have been using storytelling to relate to each other, to share knowledge, pass on history and feel close to one another. Native storytelling is, in a way, the first theater to be presented on this land.

Sheila Tousey and Wotko Long in Between Two Knees by the 1491s 
at Yale Repertory Theatre. Dir: Eric Ting, Lighting: Elizabeth Harper, Set: Regina Garcia, Projections: Shawn Duan, Costumes: Lux Haac,
Wigs: Younghawk Bautista, Sound: Jake Rodriguez, Choreographer: Ty Defoe, Fight Choreographer: Rod Kinter, Stage Manager: Amanda Luke. Photo by Charles Erickson

When I look to the future to imagine what Native Theater will look like I have to look to the past and present as well. I stand on the shoulders of incredible Native theater makers like Tomson Highway (Cree), William S. Yellow Robe Jr (Assiniboine), Hanay Geiogamah (Kiowa/ Delaware), Monique Mojica (Kuna/Rappahannock), Judy Lee Oliva (Chickasaw), Diane Glancy (Cherokee) and so many more. These theater practitioners spent decades creating theater and working to create opportunities for Native artists.

As a white Native woman, a Citizen of the Great Choctaw Nation, a descendent of the Cherokee People and a Native Theater practitioner, I spend a lot of time thinking about the current state of Native Theater. We are in the middle of a Native Theater Revolution. Regional Theaters across the country are programming Native Theater for the first time. Native artists are being hired and Native stories are being told. I have worked on several Native plays that were the theater’s first attempt at putting on a Native play. I have learned what conversations to have early on and what things I will need to explain because they will be unfamiliar to the theater’s leadership. I prepare for the first conversation about smudging and how to present it in a way that might not alarm the theater. After all, not much scares theaters more than the idea of fire onstage.

Sarah B. Dennison, Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed and Ria Nez in
Kamloopa by Kim Senklip Harvey at WAM Theater
Dir: Estefanía Fadul, Lighting: Emma Deane, Costumes: Lux Haac, Set: Calypso Michelet, Sound: Caroline Eng, Stage Manager: Amanda Luke
Photo by David Dashiell

I get excited each time I take a job working with Native Theater collaborators because in a way it feels like coming home. I prepare myself for the extra hours of consulting and educating required to keep my other Native collaborators safe and to allow them to focus on the work at hand. When I was first starting my career and people asked why I wanted to work in theater, I would talk about my love of storytelling. It was so important to me to tell stories and be a part of changing the narrative surrounding underrepresented groups: To pick which stories I told so that I was a part of sharing that story with my community. I never used to think about the people I would meet and with whom I would collaborate. Now I find that the stories I tell and my collaborators go hand in hand. It is crucial to me that I find colleagues whose values line up with my own. When I sign on to a Native project at a predominantly white institution, I know it will take more work, but I am excited to introduce a new audience to new stories and to shine a light on unrepresented communities. I am eager to share Native joy with the world. I have developed a term in my academic work studying the “how-tos of creating Native Theater at Non-Native Institutions” the term is Native Theater Ready. It takes work to be ready to tell a Native story at a non-Native Institution. If you want to tell Native stories, you need to put in the work. If a theatre company or university tries to do this work before it is ready it will likely cause more harm than good.

I think the future of all theater starts with prioritizing process over practice. It is about taking Native values and incorporating them into how you gather in space, how you create the piece, and how you collaborate. It is about putting people first and remembering that we all have obligations outside of work, telling diverse stories about everyone in the community who have a variety of life experiences. It includes working a humane workweek to allow people to have a family and life outside of theater and creating stories in a sustainable way. Most of these are practices that Native theater artists are already implementing. The future of Native theater starts with theaters adopting practices that allow everyone to succeed.

When I look to the future to imagine what Native Theater will look like I have to look to the past and present as well.

Amanda luke

When I dream of the future I think about all the Elders, Storytellers, Tribal Leaders who came before me. I think about what my people have been through and how resilient they are. Most importantly, I think about this land on which we create theater and what it was like pre-colonization, before 1491 when the first known colonizers set foot on our lands. As a Native woman, when I think about de-colonizing theater, I think about it through a Native lens. I think about my ancestors and what they must think of what I do; I think about storytelling and the ways that storytelling has shifted and evolved since that time. I don’t think it’s fully possible to de-colonize theater on Turtle Island, the land sometimes referred to as North America, because colonization is too embedded into everything we do. However, when I think about the future of theater, I think about ways to de-colonize it, and the simplest way to do that is to tell the stories of the communities that those colonizers tried to erase. These are communities whose culture, language, and existence colonizers tried to wipe out. To move forward we must look to the past.

Danforth Comins, Steven Flores, Lily Gladstone, Jeffrey Kings, Shyla Lefner, and Carla-Rae in Manahatta by Mary Kathryn Nagle
at Yale Repertory Theatre
Dir: Laurie Woolery, Lighting: Emma Deane, Costumes: Stepahnie Bahniuk, Set: Mariana Sanchez, Composer and Sound Designer: Paul James Prendergast, Projections: Mark Holthusen, Wigs: Matthew Armentrout, Movement Director: Ty Defoe, Fight Director: Rick Sordelet,
Stage Manager: Julia Bates
Photo by Joan Marcus

To me, the future of Native Theater will not be theaters giving themselves a gold star for producing their first Native theater piece. I want Native stories to be so commonplace that we aren’t amazed every time they are announced. Can we look forward to a moment when land acknowledgements lead to actions in support of Native people instead of mere performative gestures? I seek a time when Native youth and Elders are the first ones we think about when we program these productions instead of first worrying about how mainstream audiences will respond. I imagine theaters that have done the basic work to try to understand Native culture and history, before they invite Native artists into their space. When will there be multiple theaters with Native people working onstage, behind the scenes, and, most crucially, on theatre Boards. When will Audience Outreach include Native people and other unseen and under-represented communities? Native Theater is in vogue right now. It is the cool thing to include in programming at your theater to prove how diverse you are. I challenge theatres to produce a Native play for one simple reason: because your theater is on Stolen Land. Not merely to impress people or to prove something to your audience, but to give back and change the narrative for your audience, many of whom may not even realize modern Native people live within the community. Produce the play and teach your audience how to enjoy something new. Work to understand the culture and be a part of the change that is happening. Use this as an opportunity to tell a story with a different perspective. When you are programming your season consider that Native plays may feel different to you because they are being written with a different mindset. They are being written to speak to a totally different perspective than what you may be used to hearing. The future of Native Theater depends on theater practitioners from all different backgrounds being willing to open their arms and embrace Native stories.

Join the revolution.

Amanda Nita Luke

Amanda Nita Luke (Cherokee/Choctaw) is a freelance, Indigenous Stage Manager, Producer, Event Coordinator and multidisciplinary artist originally from Houston, TX. She is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and has been Stage Managing for 14 years. Amanda has a BFA in Stage Management from Syracuse University. She has worked for Yale Repertory Theater, Syracuse Stage, The Old Globe, Red Bull Theater, WAM Theater, Hartbeat Theater, Powerhouse Theater, Live in America, The Opportunity Agenda and many more. Following her graduation in 2022, Amanda plans to begin her career in Off-Broadway, Regional and Broadway Productions.

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