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Beate Hein Bennett;
Sound Between the Stars…
A Special 3 Night presentation, Feb. 5,6,7 2020 @ Abrons Series
Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, New York, NY
Presented by Spiderwoman & Loose Change Productions
In collaboration with Aanmitaagzi.
To be performed at Ellen Stewart Theater, LaMaMa in 2021.
Viewed by Beate Hein Bennett February 6, 2020
Spiderwoman Theater is the longest running Native American women’s theater company in the US. Founded in 1976 by the Brooklyn born sisters Muriel Miguel, Gloria Miguel, and Lisa Mayo (1924-2013) and Lois Weaver, it became one of the first feminist theaters in the country that gave voice to specific women’s issues, such as domestic violence and gender discrimination. After Lois Weaver left the company in 1980 to found the Lesbian theater company Split Britches, the sisters embraced their Native American traditions with their company. Muriel Miguel and Gloria Miguel are of the Kuna and Rappahannock tribes; on their father’s side the Kuna are from the Panama region while on their mother’s side the Rappahannock are from Virginia—Muriel calls herself an “urban Indian;” as she says, there are many more, urban and non-urban, than is commonly presumed.
The very name ”Spiderwoman Theater” pays homage to a Native American creation myth, told in a variety of versions among the Lakota, the Hopi, and the Navajo, and among tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Common to all of them is the notion that a Spiderwoman wove the elements together to create the universe with all its creatures, separating the humans into tribes; variously, the Spiderwoman is an Earth Goddess Spidergrandmother (Hopi), a sensual Moon Goddess (Pacific Northwest), or among the Lakota, she/he is Iktomi, the trickster/shape shifter—for the Navajo she is a frightening force of nature, while for the Hopi she is the creative life force. Central to all Native American tribal culture is “storyweaving.” The stories are not simply told in a linear chronological manner but rather stories are woven together by connecting experiences from different times and places, disregarding any distinctions between mythical and historical elements, communal and individual life, or between past and present. Stories can shift back and forth between the fantastic and the quotidian, the raucous and the serious, the comic and the tragic—a story becomes like a colorful tapestry of different materials and patterns. Common Western categories of literary distinctions do not apply. Storyweaving means incorporating all of life’s elements as they mingle in the course of an individual life-time or tribal time. Individual dreams and communal myths are woven together with personal memories and actual historical experiences, translated into a patchwork of imagery like a quilt.
The title “Misdemeanor Dream” echoes vaguely Shakespeare’s fantasy, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in which shape shifting fairies, gods, rulers, boys and girls, and “rude mechanicals” gambol through a mythical forest. However, while “Misdemeanor Dream” is also a gambol through a mythical landscape of no-time and all-time, the word “Misdemeanor” in the title refers to hurtful behavior. In a short speech before the performance, Muriel Miguel explained that Native experience in encounters with the invading European (white) dominant culture in the Americas has been mostly unjust, deadly violent, genocidal even, but that these crimes have been misrepresented and downgraded in the dominant popular histories of Europeans as misdemeanors—“a slap on the hand.” By contrast in the collective memory of Native Americans these events are the stuff of bad dreams: the land grab and creation of ghetto reservations; the forced dislocations, e.g. the Cherokee “trail of tears”, the forced march from their native Tennessee to Oklahoma; the prohibition of native languages in Reservation schools by legal decree; the prevalent disenfranchising impoverishment. All this is woven into the individual as well as communal consciousness and perspective.
“Misdemeanor Dream” is written by the ensemble and their stories are woven together through words, supported by choral non-verbal vocalizations and gestural movement. The program lists as Storyweaving Leaders: Director Muriel Miguel, Choreographer Penny Couchie, and Vocal Choreography by Imelda Villalon. However, the entire ensemble not only contributed to the stories, a fluid mix of myths, legends, and individual life experiences as well as dreams, but also to the visual elements that fill the stage space with a riot of color. Under the coordination of Set and Production Designer Stefan Hannigan, Lead Installation Artists and Costume Coordinators Sherry Guppy and Megan Lozicki Paulin, together with members of the ensemble, a lively visual field is created, comprising of panels hung around the stage painted with various mythical creatures, stage left hangs a huge quilt, underneath it a white tunnel protrudes like a birth canal, stage center is dominated by a ladder camouflaged with feathers of all kinds and colors, and stage right is a modest throne for Gloria Miguel. Joyce Liao created lighting that bathes the stage in a warm glow. The costumes are a fantastic assemblage of cloths, sparkles, ribbons and feathers of all kinds and colors attached on the actors’ bodies in an amusing haphazard manner. Hairstyles on some actors are a humorous version of Native American braids while others stay with common contemporary styles.
The stories not only weave different elements together in a fluid shifting way but are also told in different Native languages—by last count at least five—some of the words are projected on the panels. In a post-performance discussion, the question arose how different tribes communicated with one another, for example while trading. One answer was that within the alliances of different tribes, e.g. within the Algonquin Nation, the languages are similar. Also sign language had been developed among tribes from different regions. In the performance idiosyncratic gestural movements accompany subtle non-verbal vocalizations. Certain recurring motifs incorporate elements of the universe: the stars are the ultimate home to aspire to recalling the idea of five ascending universes; birth from the bottom of the ocean; the moon as a young erotic woman; the skywoman. While the stories contain much humor, often self-deprecating, there is also the expression of existential pain in the search for authentic identity; in this case, it is not a question of gender identity but more the question of how to live as a Native American in a country (and a world) that has distorted notions of Native American culture as promulgated in literature-- the German author Karl May and his Winnetou character come in for a ribbing-- and promoted by the tourism industry, especially in the Southwest. Muriel Miguel told the audience that as an “urban Indian” child growing up in Brooklyn, she felt her identity intensely for the first time when she attended a Pow Wow through the sounds, the dances, the language. And so the performance begins with a man rhythmically drumming on a small hand drum made of wood and skin, singing a mantra-like song with a refrain that translates loosely: “Bear Heart, go West, follow the sun.”
The “Misdemeanor Dream” ensemble belongs to many different tribes, located as far apart as NW Canada, Ontario, New York City, and the Southwest of the US. Because it is important to the artists to be identified by their tribal affiliations, I will list them here: The Nipissing Nation in Ontario supports the professional indigenous multi-arts company Aamitaagzi and incorporates the Anishinaabe tribe—the choreographer and performer Penny Couchie, her husband performer and installation artist Sid Bobb, performer Animikiikwe Couchie-Waukey, and the performer Lisa Cromarty belong to this tribe, the latter identifies also as Oji-Creeis; performer Donna Couteau is of the Sac and Fox Nation; performer Sharon Day is a member of the Ojibwe (Minnesota); performer Tyree Giroux belongs to the Chickasaw; Marjolaine McKenzie belongs to the Matimekush Lac-John of the Innu Nation; performer Soni Moreno is of Maya/Apache/Yaqui descent; performer Henu Josephine Tarrant, Muriel Miguel’s granddaughter belongs to the Kuna and Rappahannock but has Hopi and Hochunk ancestry as well. Megan Lozicki Paulin, born in North Bay Ontario, is of Mi’kmaq and Polish descent and is core member of Aanmitaagzi as a visual artist. Some ensemble members do not list specific tribal associations but have worked with indigenous theatre for many years: performer Imelda Villon who created the fascinating vocal choreography has collaborated with Aanmitaagzi and Spiderwoman on Storyweaving projects for several years; Wolfen de Kastro, also a musician and writer, has performed under the auspices of AMERINDA and with Spiderwoman; Sherry Guppy, a native of NE Ontario, has collaborated with Aamitaagzi and Spiderwoman in multiple visual arts capacities.
While the three performances this February gave the audience a wonderful impression of the work-in-progress, of which I hope to have given the reader a foretaste with this article, I am looking forward to seeing it next year at LaMaMa in the expansive space of the Ellen Stewart Theater.
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