November 16, 2004
Raising Her Native Voice
Lawrence playwright's "Weaving the Rain" speaks to American Indian struggles.
By Mindie Paget
Margie Two Crow doesn't trust these doctors. These doctors can't be very good if they ended up at Indian Health Services.And why can't they get her name right? Two Crow. A number and a bird. Nothing exotic. If they can't manage that, then how are they supposed to save her husband's life? Meanwhile, she's stuck in this dingy waiting room with her children, clinging to her Bible and questioning God: "Why are you doing this to us? Haven't you taken enough?"
Never mind that Margie Two Crow is really Lawrence actress Lori Tapahonso and this is the set of local writer Dianne Yeahquo Reyner's new play, "Weaving the Rain." The fictitious waiting room -- with its gray chairs all hooked together and its kitschy knickknacks -- looks like any number of real Indian Health Services lobbies.
And the waiting? Well that's real, too.
"The family is virtually trapped within this waiting room, and the waiting room itself is almost a metaphor for what native people are constantly being required to do: They're constantly asked to wait for something better to happen, to wait for Congress to act ... to wait for children to come back, to wait for a better life," says Reyner, a Haskell Indian Nations University English instructor and member of the Kiowa Nation.
But during the course of the Two Crow's long night at the hospital -- as they confront a painful family history and disappointing personal choices -- something transformative happens: They realize they aren't alone, that they can find strength to live better by reconnecting with their roots.
"At some point, you have to stop waiting and you have to actually be motivated to create your own destiny and your own direction," says Reyner, a 1970 Lawrence High School graduate. "And you find the strength for that in who you are as a native person, who you are as part of your own community and your family, which is much larger than the immediate family. It goes to the extended family and even beyond that to the land itself, which gives you your identity."
Few native voices
Haskell's Thunderbird Theatre company will stage "Weaving the Rain" Friday and Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. The play is a co-production with English Alternative Theatre at Kansas University, where Reyner wrote the script last spring in Paul Stephen Lim's playwriting class.
"It's a good play," Lim says, "and it's not every day that I get a Native American playwright in my classes at KU."
Indeed, American Indian voices are in short supply on the national stage as well. So "Weaving the Rain" has generated some excitement among native theater professionals, says Pat Melody, director of Thunderbird Theatre.
"I like the reality of it," she says of the script. "There is a very vital contemporary native culture that so often gets buried under Hollywood misconceptions. So often the entertainment industry only looks at native culture in terms of something of the past."
Reyner seconds that sentiment.
"When was the last television show or commercial or anything else that had a native person in it?" she says. "You've got ‘Dances with Wolves,' which basically was a Kevin Costner movie. You have ‘Windtalkers,' but that was largely a Nicolas Cage story, and the Navajo code talkers were sort of secondary."
Not so in Reyner's play, which more closely follows the unprecedented model set by 1998's "Smoke Signals," a film written by Sherman Alexie, directed by Chris Eyre and performed by a relatively unknown slate of American Indian actors. Likewise, the six-member cast of "Weaving the Rain" is comprised entirely of American Indians, who all say they see a little of themselves and their families in the Two Crow clan.
What binds the playwright, the actors and their fictional counterparts together, Reyner says, is a common history fraught with genocide, forced relocation and government programs that have ripped native families apart.
"What we begin to see in these contemporary times is those policies are still affecting tribal communities today, even though those policies have stopped," Reyner says. "They've been replaced by other policies."
The long-term effects of such practices, Reyner says, are unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, fractionalized families and continued racism. In "Weaving the Rain," the Two Crows confront how this history has affected them.
Margie Two Crow and her children have been called to the hospital, where the father has been brought by ambulance. Although these trips have become routine because of the alcoholic father's physical deterioration from cirrhosis, this time it's more serious.
Brad Horne, a Haskell senior in business administration from Medill, Okla., plays John, who, as the eldest living Two Crow son is expected to lead the family.
"But he's taking the same steps as his father was," Horne says. "He's making every effort to get away from that responsibility. He knows what he has to do, and he just won't."
Horne, a hulking young Choctaw man whose soft voice belies his size, plays a role that demands great emotional range. In one scene he stumbles into the waiting room. He can't stop laughing. His head hurts.
"Sis, do you have any aspirin?" He's drunk again. Out of control.
In another scene, though, he rages against the establishment. He's angry that "benevolent" white people come to the reservation with their video cameras and notebooks. "I'll tell my own story," he rails.
Some of the scenes in "Weaving the Rain" are all too familiar, he says.
"I know my father's coming up here, and there's this particular scene in here that I know me and him will probably relate to because we had that trouble," Horne says. "This will probably be emotional for both of us."
Yet for all of its origins in the American Indian experience, "Weaving the Rain" rings universally true.
"We tell stories from who we are and where we come from. Every writer does that. I wouldn't begin to tell a story of someone from another culture because it's their right to tell that story," Reyner says.
"But these are not isolated problems to Native America. I think there are a lot of universal elements that any audience would identify with and appreciate."
The play marks Reyner's first script to be produced. Although the Two Crows are a Kiowa family, she tried to keep the issues general enough -- and the set spare enough -- that the show could be performed in tribal communities across the country.
"There aren't a lot of native theater companies in the country that could do this," she says. "Hopefully I'll be able to find a place to continue to present different stories, even if I have to do it in church basements, which is where a lot of native theater is done."
Reyner is currently serving as consultant for experimental theater artist Ping Chong's "Native Voices -- Secret History," a script based on the personal stories and experiences of American Indians in Lawrence that will be performed in April at the Lied Center. In the mean time, "Weaving the Rain" has been entered in several playwriting competitions in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
Reyner's hopes for the play's success go far beyond personal recognition.
"It doesn't even have to be my play; I would just love to see a native play go beyond the community theater level," she says. "I would love to see a native play receive recognition. So we'll see."
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