Terry Gomez – Playwright/Actor/Director (2008)
As a Native American artist and playwright, I have experienced many different opinions of what Indian theater and performance should be. Like all contemporary artistic forms, the texture of Indigenous theatre is constantly morphing and redefining itself. Storytelling is an important part of our culture and in this regard the theater remains traditional and solid. At the same time, it is never static or inert. It is the paradoxical quality that attracts me to the art and the struggle for the proliferation.
As a Comanche playwright, director, and actor, I am a bit of a rarity in the theater as a whole. In the last five years, I have had an opportunity to work with formal organizations and institutions which promote Native American theater for the Indigenous communities specifically and also for a general audience. Due to these circumstances, I have met and worked with both playwrights and theatre artists from tribal communities who are thriving and others who are nearly broken and ready to quit. Though I know many people of all races that are fantastic to work with, it is always something of a relief to meet other Native artists who understand the struggles of a Native woman artist.
For some odd reason, the world has accepted the embodiment of the Native people from the perspective of the frontiersman, historian, photographer, ethnographer, and oppressor/conqueror instead of from us. Few written or recorded documents are available to the public and even to our own tribes. We remain viable and strong due in large part because of the oral histories kept, retold and some finally written by our own people. Therein lies the traditional. The People: in my language Numunu. Some of this information remains private to the People. Not gone, but treasured as our own.
However, unless we reveal the contemporary living with the traditional, we remain invisible. This is why it is vital that we insist that our voices be heard. We are still here and always will be. We are and have always been a part of this American society and are able to conform to ways of the Western society including theater. We are finding that it is a powerful expression that can be adapted to fit our culture without corrupting it further.
My own writing has been accepted more often during these last five years due in part to my ongoing practice and experience. I’ve been told by various white professional males in theater, film, and television that there is no interest in Native American people or stories of their lives. I have been told by said white men (including Edward Albee on a college visit in Santa Fe) that I shouldn’t write at all! Very discouraging to a writer, but it also has the opposite “bee in the bonnet” relation between cause and effect and spurred me on. I worked even harder.
In all fairness however, I have had many white people who have given me many opportunities and have helped me attain productions and success with my writing. These people – among others of various races – see the importance and wealth from learning about differences in others and understand my passions for cultural expression in my writing. In turn, this is what I have learned from them. They are the people who have helped me erase the racist attitudes that I held from growing up in small Oklahoma towns where there was a plethora of Caucasian citizens who were intolerant of diversity, who thought they were superior over any race or culture.
It was partly because of this, I believe, that my mother tried to dissuade me from becoming a Native writer and artist. Western theater has not been a strong part of our culture and is still regarded as an eccentric career choice. However, our communities are beginning to find ways to introduce plays and acting into the tribal grade schools and language programs. Tribal college students humor the waxing and waning of programs geared toward propagation of theater by Indigenous for the Indigenous. Though this sounds nationalistic, it isn’t the goal. Though tradition and a revered history are important to us, a reality in the Indian community is that many Native people are blended biologically with different ethnicities and other tribes. A good point about the arts is that it is for everyone. And like all theater, any audience is always appreciated and welcomed.
In fact, we have such a small number of Native actors that even though a part is written for a Native person we sometimes are required to utilize actors who are not Native. No, their skin is not painted brown (on any of my productions, anyway). However, I’ve had actors who dyed their hair darker even before I could request it. On the last show that I had produced by the University of New Mexico, I had the great fortune to work with a wonderful Native woman, Sheila Tousey, as my director.
Sheila wanted a diverse cast, which we did have, even though the women were all Comanche characters and a lot of the dialogue included my tribal language. I, on the other hand wasn’t sure at first. The idea of diversity is great, yes. But, I have yet to have my recent work produced with Native actors playing all of the Native characters. I think if it happened all the time, I wouldn’t be so reluctant to accept non-Natives playing Native. It is because that the occasion is so rare to have a Native cast when called for that I balk at the request for a diverse cast. Yes, I think the best actor should be cast, regardless. But as I said, even though the show works overall, it is somewhat painful to know, for example, that my Comanche woman is not an Indigenous woman but say, Irish/Scottish.
However, I admit that once I got past my fears of identity, the play was remarkable. I am working on accepting this as the way it is… for now. And it is getting easier to accept being that Native Americans are always transforming themselves and that there is no one typical way to “look Indian.”
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