Jake Hart – Actor (2008)
When positing opinions or beliefs, I am hard pressed to do so on paper. Unlike real life, I feel that, as a performer, it robs me of my natural inclination to affect or manipulate the text. This in turn obliges me to be honest. So let me be forthright with you and admit that I am biased. I can no more write about the viewpoints of all those who are indigenous to the land underneath the United States than I can write about the mating habits of sea turtles. I’ve seen it, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lived it. By blood and body I am Blackfeet, Cherokee and a very small smattering of some kind of Caucasian or Hispanic. By experience I was born into an off-Rez unaffiliated family in urban California, a child of the lower income bracket, which sounds much nicer than lower class but in a capitalist society, almost without exception, it holds the same meaning. I grew up in urban America and in high school was thankfully moved to the suburbs of Seattle. It wasn’t until I arrived there that, for the first time, I was occasionally in the company of other Indians; more to the point Indians who knew, or were learning of, the cultural histories and beliefs unique to their individual nations. When I tell you my experiences with Native Theater, please know they are viewed through this lens.
So I’m Indian. In high school, and again after college, I played Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but no further Native roles of note. This role was perhaps surprisingly outside of the more common “Leather and Feather” molds I would later come to understand. The previous reference is industry slang in some circles for a gig that asks you to wear buckskins and a headdress, maybe even ride a horse if you’re lucky. These are the majority of all Indian roles in film history. Granted times are a-changin’. Stage-wise, there is a reason I’ve been able to play roles that are out of the mold. I can pass. Let me tell you, I can be white, Italian, Middle Eastern, Greek, an entire range of Latin or anything that strikes your mind regarding brown people other than Native Americans. When you’re brown, if you’re not black or Asian, and you’re not hairless, you can be anything. You can be Lebanese if you study the dialect for a few months. Nobody’s first instinct is to say you’re Native American. As Chris Rock, a popular African American comedian states in his famous racism bit, “Nobody’s got it worse than the Indians…When’s the last time you met two Indians?” He caps the joke with, “I have seen more polar bears than Indians in my lifetime!” He’s not wrong.
In urban America the American Indian is to this day often considered a historical aspect of the country, not a vibrant or considerable race within its communities. Indeed, we have been so decimated and assimilated, in a place so sought after, it now seems there are more representatives from every other country and ethnic culture in the world than there ever were indigenous inhabitants. A few years ago, while getting to know my fellow company members at a popular midwest Shakespeare festival, a gentleman from New York who had just learned that I was Indian somewhat jokingly grabbed onto my arms and hands as if I was an apparition and said, “My god, you’re real!” In complete truth he admitted he had never known an Indian, not that he knew of. With this reality in the face of all that we do, where can I even begin [to talk] about the arts?
In all things art, our job is generally to create life, and in so doing to tell stories, to communicate in some way to the audience/listener/reader/observer. It is my opinion that we all wish to have the clearest and most effective capabilities in that communication. Very often I feel we Indians find difficulty in this, because the first step of our artistic endeavors often needs to be a prologue, usually some kind of explanation of what it means to be Indian. We find that we are constantly trying to explain ourselves, to each other and to the world. The Native American “race” is in fact a collection of hundreds of different social groups, most with different histories and even languages, who must all now consider themselves one people. One can suppose this is how races and nations are made in the first place. But how does such a group find one voice? In our time, when the larger percentage of races that represent the United States, those who’ve had a cultural revolution in some form, are fighting to find a more open and clear definition for their American artistic voices, the Indian artistic voice is like a child still learning a foreign language. We are still trying out sentences to see if we can agree on them, and if other people can understand. Still yearning to find stories that connect us to one another, much less the world around us.
Financially, these problems make us a production risk. Regardless of how we artists wish the world would work, if you are a financial risk without any popular public demand, you are restricted. On a large scale nothing happens for you without a financial benefactor matching all donations and a series of grants from foundations big enough to appeal to regional boards. So it goes for all productions of American theater. People are trying, but on that level we must remember we are just one group of many. This may be our land, but we do not get home-field advantage.
In summary, I find that I must end as I began. I can barely tell you what it is like to be a Native American actor. In order to be a working actor in this world, I have been Middle Eastern, Latino, Italian, American, British, an old French woman and anything else I had to be to make it. For that I am grateful, and I would continue to do things that way even if being Indian becomes the most popular show in town. Not only to make a living mind you, but merely to make art, to be a part of storytelling that has range, and an opportunity to reach the masses. I believe, as do many Native Americans, that a time is coming when we will have a strong and clear voice in the arts. There might be a way one day for me to just be Indian and have that be enough, without going on Canadian television that is. Without having to prove it, explain it, qualify it, mask it or dress it up in easily recognizable clothing. Before that day ever comes in America there will first have to be an Indian culture that not only bares our collective voice, in all its many forms upon the world, but one that can accept and believe in what that voice will be.
Post Script: A few years ago, I was in a national tour of a co-production between Trinity Repertory and the Penumbra African American Theater Company. The play was Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, by William S. Yellowrobe Jr., and the production was excited and honored to call itself the first fully produced regional/national tour of a Native American play by a Native American playwright. That was 2005, to my knowledge there has not yet been another.
` ~Jake Hart, actor
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