As the year is quickly coming to an end, I am celebrating actually completing a play. Yes, yes, I’ve written others, but this year felt more momentous and quite a learning experience. Both bad and good.
Good. I finished 2 plays, start to finish, and actually submitted them to places.
Bad, because I had to realize what it means to have a Native play out there in the world and what the possibilities of it are.
I became an actor because I wanted to see accurate depictions of Native people. As time went on, I realized that it was more than the physical depiction, but the actual stories being told and who was telling them. I had the opportunity to work on a studio project as a Native character with a 3 episode arc. For whatever reason, which I didn’t bother to ask, I was only given my pages from the episodes and not the complete episode. It wasn’t until I arrived on location that I got to see more, which made me question my role. Because the show was based on a book, I read the book. There was no mention of my character, or my family in the book, which isn’t abnormal to have, but I felt that Native people were being added to the story to add diversity and it did nothing to add to the overall storyline. What was interesting were the words and subject matter that were used to discuss Native people. I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with the director and discuss the episode and question words and phrases used and wonder what the payoff was for them. The director took my questions to the writers and further discussion was had. I appreciated the time that was taken and I feel I was heard. Did it change things? I don’t know, but I do hope that those writers and that director will remember that conversation if they participate in another project with similar themes.
I say this because after my play was written and the time came to cast it, I was so disheartened and wondered why I should even bother. Why bother to write the stories if they are so difficult to cast? How hard can it be?
Early this year there was another play with a Native character, written by a non-Native writer. Fine, no big deal. Again, I had the opportunity to talk with the playwright, who was also the casting director. I understood the play and the people because the playwright was from Canada and I knew where the story was from. I questioned the playwright on some of the lines as I tried to see (once again) the point of having a Native character. Yes, it’s great that there are Native characters out there to play, but these roles are usually the stereotypical native-loving conservationists because that’s what Native people are. Right? At the end of the day, they ended up NOT casting a Native person and kept the role as Native. I asked actor friends if they auditioned for it or if they heard about it, and all of them said no. Even though it was on Actor’s Access. Even though the casting director (who, remember, is the playwright) reached out to people, she obviously didn’t get the turnout she expected and made the choice to hire a Non-Native actor.
I wonder if we, as Native people, are so hell-bent on accurate representation that we don’t audition for the part? Which is a feasible response. But the project usually still gets made, with or without accurate representation.
In trying to cast my 5 person play, I understood for a brief moment why some things get cast as they do. I was on the verge of saying just put the best actor in there. That didn’t mean that Native actors were bad, it just meant that for my play to be read and workshopped, I needed someone to read the words, anyone. In the end, I reached out to friends so I could hear my show. But it didn’t leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling. What will happen when my play goes out into the world without me? How will it be cast? And how do you deal with that as the playwright?
I will leave you to ponder that and hopefully offer some advice.
I gotta go finish my next play. Happy writing!