Native Women Rising
Why three premieres in Oregon are a sign of the times—and a long time coming.
This doesn’t happen every season: In Oregon this April, you can see three new plays by Native women produced at major resident theatres. Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play will be performed at Artists Repertory Theatre April 1-29; DeLanna Studi’s And So We Walked will be up at Portland Center Stage at the Armory March 31-May 13; and Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta opens at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival March 28 and runs through Oct. 27. If you stop through Portland on your way to or from Ashland in April, you could see all three in one trip.
While the timing of this convergence is unique, FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota), Nagle (Cherokee), and Studi (Cherokee) are in no way new to the American theatre. They’ve made it this far because of their creativity, their community and ancestral support, and their unflinching belief that Native stories matter and will be told. Also: Their plays are really good. They vary widely in genre, as do the origins of each story. Each play has the ability to make you laugh and open your eyes to see the world around you in unexpected ways.
Indeed, opening eyes to an unacknowledged world was a key impulse behind Nagle’s Manahatta. As a member of the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in New York City in 2013, she realized that none of her non-Native colleagues knew the story of the Lenape people whose land the theatre stood on. She knew that was the story she needed to write there.
For her part, Studi had been having dreams since she was a child of walking the Trail of Tears with her dad to find out where her family came from. So when a director asked about her dream project, she knew that was the story she needed to tell.
And FastHorse began The Thanksgiving Play in Ireland while staying in Tyrone Guthrie’s historic house on a fellowship from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis that provided her with the space and time to create.
But there was another prompt behind each project as well. Each of these women had been told countless times, in countless ways, that there was no room for Native stories in the American theatre. So these plays emerged not only from the writers’ storytelling impulse but also out of their drive to create Native plays that would make it to the stage. These playwrights are the kind of people who don’t tell you you’re wrong about something; they meet you where you are and show you something you need to see.