Michigan by Anita Gonzalez
At the DG conference panel on “How to Write the Political Play,” Kira Obolensky spoke about the need to get writers out of the theatre and connected with communities of activism. In May 2018, I assembled a team of writers, directors and dramaturgs to do just that – to explore how theatre and storytelling could do political work at a local site. Artists worked with Anishinaabe communities in the Upper Peninsula (the part of Michigan above the mitten) to tell stories which would illuminate issues of social justice and sovereignty. As part of a month-long residence, writers met for a three-day retreat at the Mary Murray Culture camp where they participated in free writing exercises while processing their cultural immersion experiences.
The writing workshop was an addendum to a broader project where fishermen from the Bay Mills Tribe, members of the Indigenous Youth Council, cultural leaders from Sault St Marie Chippewa Tribe and students from Lake Superior State University came together to tell stories about the fish wars. This was a resistance act in the 1970s and 1980s when local fishermen fought commercial fishermen and “sporties” for the right to observe their treaty rights and fish in a traditional way in the Great Lakes. The original script, compiled by Ojibwe Zhiibahaasing tribal member Rebecca Parish from fishermen’s stories, was expanded through devised performance led by University of Michigan professor Malcolm Tulip. We then worked to weave together the various components of the stories into a cohesive event. Ultimately, the production included native drumming, documentary films and audience participation through dialogue and discussion. Like a musical, the story was revealed through interdisciplinary collaboration.
What was challenging about the project was how artists from NYC, Ann Arbor, and other metropolitan areas were compelled to listen to the community’s needs and experiences before writing and staging a work. This model for political action asks those who wish to activate for social issues to begin by immersing themselves in a community’s existing infrastructure. Ultimately, all of us needed to listen to the fishermen and their ideas about how they wanted their stories told. We brought audience members into the circle and made sure there were youth in attendance who could benefit from hearing experiences of their elders. If you want to write a political play in collaboration with an existing community, first steps, at least in this instance, were to listen and respond outside of personal perceptions or ambitions.
By the time you read this, snow may be on the ground in the Upper Peninsula. Storytelling within the Anishinaabe community will be in process. My hope is for UP residents, perhaps inspired by the Anishinaabe Theatre Exchange, to put words on papers to tell more unique stories of a region under-represented in the theatrical canon. More information about the exchange is available at: