First of all, I don’t think I’m a very traditional practitioner of my art. I was writing and publishing without receiving any formal training in creative writing (poetry, plays, fiction) until much later in life. I was an actor who retired years ago to go to graduate school, to create models of diversity, equity, and inclusion through a social justice praxis. I’m a former Chief Diversity Officer and Student Affairs Officer rooted in a deep social justice methodology that extends from not only formal training, but from being raised in a family where social justice wasn’t just words but actions, lifestyle, religious practice, and social change rooted in the study of inequity in communities of color.
That said, when I began teaching creative writing, specifically playwriting, I chose plays that students most likely had never been exposed to in traditional theatre departments. I was BIPOC before BIPOC was a term, and I was a social justice warrior long before the collective consciousness understood inequity and racism, classism, feminism, and capitalism. Plays by Indigenous playwrights Mary Kathryn Nagle, William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., Hanay Geiogamah, and Rhiana Yazzie, just to name a few, were and are staples on my syllabi. These playwrights examine issues within their home communities as well as in the larger scale of national Indigenous issues: Nagle in terms of legal issues that threaten to erode hard fought for and won tribal sovereignty; Yellow Robe’s historical associations in mixed-race Indigeneity; Yazzie’s border-busting Indigenous connectivity that predates and precedes modern geographical isolations; Geiogamah’s early interrogation of pan-Indian experiences out of the Civil Rights movement. All these playwrights are taught in my courses with a critical eye to Indigenous rhetorical sovereignty: Indigenous peoples telling stories of Indigenous peoples that are reflective of political, cultural, linguistic, and social movements of Native peoples in North America and the interactions of these movements with the larger American society.
This year, I have added Please Do Not Feed the Indians, as written and directed by Murielle Borst-Tarrant and performed by Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective in New York. Borst-Tarrant, the playwright, author, director, activist, and UN diplomat, comes from one of New York’s oldest Indigenous activist families who also married into one of New York’s oldest Indigenous activist families, the Miguels and the Tarrants. As an actor and performer, Borst-Tarrant honed her craft academically and as part of the oldest American Indian theatre company in the United States, Spider Woman Theatre, and with her own company, co-founded with her late husband Kevin Tarrant as part of La Mama’s community-engaged performance praxis. The play Please Do Not Touch The Indians harkens back to Spider Woman’s early minstrel show’s story-weaving technique: narratives that can be independent of one another but woven together to create a larger, related piece. In these stories, Indigenous rhetorical sovereignty is explored through traditional and modern storytelling, reifying the connections of Indigenous peoples to land base, language, family, and home.