Thursday, March 25, 2010

Helpful Articles from our Dramaturg

Jacqueline Lawton, our production dramaturg, has provided the cast and crew - and now you - with very helpful information that provides context about the play and related research. Enjoy the articles and interviews and information!

Playwright Bio
WILLIAM S. YELLOW ROBE, JR. (Playwright) is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine Nation located on the Fort Peck Indian reservation in northeastern Montana. William is the Playwright in Residence at Trinity Repertory Company and has been a Guest Lecturer/Professor at the Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Yellow Robe is an actor, playwright, director, poet, and instructor. He is a Faculty Affiliate in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Montana, in Missoula, Montana, and was awarded a Libra Professor of Diversity status at the University of Maine, in Orono, Maine. His body of work includes over forty-five plays, including full-length plays, one-acts, book for musical, and children’s play. His plays include; The Independence of Eddie Rose, Sneaky, The Star Quilter, The Body Guards, The Council, Better-n-Indins Falling Distance, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, and the Pendleton Blanket.” William is a member of the Dramatist’s Guild Inc., Native Writers Circle of the Americas, and is a member of the advisory boards for Red Eagle Soaring Theater in Seattle, Washington, and the Missoula Writers’ Collaborative in Missoula, Montana. His plays have been presented in readings and productions at the New York Public Theater, American Conservatory Theater, the former Seattle Group Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center, Illusion Theatre, Montana Repertory Theatre, and the Perishable Theatre. William is a recipient of a Theatre Communications Group National Residency Grant, Princess Grace Fellowship, Jerome Foundation Grant, New England Theatre Conference Award, and was awarded the first First Book Award for Drama from the Returning the Gift conference.

An Interview with the Playwright: William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.
Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers

The following interview was conducted with William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. by Pamela Ward and Jason Harber of Trinity Repertory Company’s Education Department in March, 2005. Reprinted with permission.

JH: How do you, specifically, approach playwriting? What are the hardest and/or easiest things about playwriting for you personally?
WSYRJR: Well, playwriting does not exist within the Assiniboine language. A lot of theatrical concepts such as “play”, “acting”, and “directing” do not exist in indigenous languages. So my process has always been the process of trying to bridge or finding elements that are already in existence within the Native culture and then trying to form a bridge with the Euro-American style of theater; one such element is story telling. I have found elements of traditional story telling that I can incorporate into my writing.

I come from a strong storytelling tradition but also have been influenced by traditions of public speaking. This is not to say grandma was member of Equity. Our elders and grandparents of both the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes had a way that they held themselves…a way that they conducted themselves when addressing the public. I watched the elders and grandparents when they spoke in at campaigns or social gatherings, Pow-wows or what we called celebrations. They had an ability to show command, and also be able to reach the audience. This wasn’t acting; it was the preparation and conduct.

On a personal level, I feel that it comes from a spiritual level where the words aren’t mine. In fact when rehearsing a recent show called Better-n-Indins at Perishable Theatre, I told the cast “These words aren’t mine. All I did was listen, and the words were there. But I had to listen.” Writing Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers was a difficult process because it was a topic that was very close to me. I also learned a lot about writing from reading William Shakespeare. In Hamlet, the soliloquies are so prepared, so short, deep but with a sense of urgency within the character. I would take notice of those in looking at the play.

JH: When did you first start writing plays? What made you start?
WSYRJR: Well, I started in sixth grade. I wrote two really bad one-act plays, one about the twelve tasks of Hercules, and the other about Cleopatra because I had seen Cleopatra the movie the night before. Much later, in 1986, I was invited to a production of one of my plays by the Native American Theatre Ensemble. Word got out through Montana that I was going to Los Angeles, and my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Dorothy Grow, sent me both of those first plays. She had kept them for so long. I had this huge envelope in my mailbox with a note from her saying, “Thank you!” Growing up on the reservation, I had difficulty attending classes because I had the mentality that I had failed the system.But, I came to realize, as I got older that the system was never meant for me; the system had nothing to offer me. I was in a classroom where I was told my people don’t count, make no contributions to the community and it was really disheartening for a young kid to hear that he is basically worthless. Dorothy Grow was the one and only teacher that showed me I was worth a damn. So, whenever I do an interview, I always mention her because she was the one who pulled me aside.

Another event that influenced me was in high school. The Montana Repertory Theatre was doing a production of A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill. The touring company hired us for something like $1.75 an hour to help take down the set…and when I was tearing down that set after seeing the show, I realized that this is something that I want to do. There is an automatic segregation that happens in American theatre that always fascinates me. The actors go on one side, and the designers/technical people go on the other. There is just no middle ground and I really despise that, because I think that it just doesn’t need to happen. I believe that we should all be working together as a group; no one is greater than anyone else. The action of the play is greater than everyone. My frustration with American theatre is that it has such a hierarchal elitist approach to doing this art form, and it drives me nuts.

JH: Who and/or what influences your writing? You talked about some of your experiences in your childhood…what else influences you?
WSYRJS: Well, it goes way back. One of the first influences was having my relatives tell me stories. Even when I would return years later, they would call me and say, “Bill, come here. I have a story for you. Have you heard this one?” In writing, one of the first people that really influenced me was James Welch. James Welch was a novelist who wrote Winter in the Blood. James was also dear to me because he was from my neck of the woods; he was from Montana. He actually wrote about and described the hatred between Natives and non-Natives in Montana. In Indian Lawyer, a Native lawyer takes his white girlfriend to a restaurant. The scene is told through the girlfriend’s eyes as she notices how people treat her and look at her differently…just because she is there with an Indian. Regardless that the man she is with is running for the U.S. Congress, regardless that he is rich; he is only an Indian in their eyes.

In terms of theater, Aristophanes has been a great influence on my work. Also, William Shakespeare has been a big influence simply for the fact that he wrote for the masses…he wrote for the people. I think that shows in my work; I write for people, not just one group, but all people. Or, I try to have my stories be shared by people. My playwriting instructors have always frustrated me when they ask the question, “What audience are you writing for?” I always tell them that I am not writing for an audience, I am just trying to get the story right. In later years, August Wilson has been a big influence on my writing. Also, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Neil Simon have been influences as well. I had a collection of British playwright Joe Orton’s work, and I really loved his work.

Jose Rivera is a young man and a young playwright whose recent work interests me a lot; his play The Promise is just a beautiful play. I’ve also been influenced by Marian McClinton, Beverly Smith Dawson, Magdalia Cruz, and Hanay Geigoamah. I’ve also been influenced by different operas. The Magic Flute is an opera that has always fascinated me. The storyline and the music of that opera have always fascinated me. Mozart also influenced me as a playwright.

JH: What are the origins of this play, Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? How did it come about?
WSYRJR: Man, this is a hard one, just because it is emotional. It started when my wife was dying of cancer in 1996. She wanted me to write a play based on my African American heritage; she thought that at one point, I was ashamed of it. But I wasn’t ashamed of it; I just didn’t know anything about it. I am part black: I am 3/8 African American and 5/8 Assiniboine. A lot of people think that I am a full-blood Native, and I was raised to be a full-blood. I live in this way, or try. I can remember that in third grade was the first time I was called “nigger”, and it was by a Native person. It was only after my wife Diane’s encouragement that I could go back and really examine this fact.

She died in 1996, and I wrote the first draft of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers in 1997. I wrote it just to fulfill that need of pleasing her. But then I put it on a shelf, and didn’t touch it again until 2001 when I brought it to Trinity during my TCG/Pew Fellowship and I had a chance to really sit down and take a look at the possibilities of what the play could be. It was interesting because I really was able to reflect back on that time.

People who are part Native and part another race are called “breeds” in the Native community and by the other communities that surround them. Breeds who are part white and part Native can run to the white people and denounce their Native heritage when it is convenient for them. Then, when it is convenient to be Native, run back to the Natives and say, “Here I am, I am Native again.” I couldn’t do that. There was no African American community to run to. In fact, there was a lot of racism. I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Montana. There is an unspoken conflict between African Americans and Native Americans out west partly because of how the relationships were introduced and maintained by the military and economics and other social institutions all of which led to long-lasting misconceptions and hatred.

JH: What is the significance of the title Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers? What made you pick that for the title?
WSYRJR: The term “Buffalo Soldiers” was given to black soldiers conscripted by the U.S. Army after the Civil War to fight Natives in the west. They were promised freedom and a homeland, but also there wasn’t a lot of change for them after slavery. It eventually became a term used to describe all of the blacks of the West. “Grandchildren” is a term or a phrase of endearment among Native people. So by using the title of Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers it is almost like putting the words “good” and “bad” together, yet at the same time making a new word or a new concept.

Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers is actually the second play in a cycle of plays I have completed. The first, The Stray Dog, deals with the relationships of the white Americans and the Native Americans. The third play in the cycle is Blood of the Rez was read at the First Theater of the Four Directions Playwriting Festival here at Trinity Repertory Company. The final play is called Pieces of Us…it is the final chapter in a cycle that deals with the heritage of mixed blood and ‘blood quantum’.

JH: What do you as a playwright hope that the audience takes from this play?
WSYRJR: I am somewhat scared of it playing out west and being out west because I know what is out there. It is a different time and it is a different mentality. I am concerned about how the Natives will react to it because I think that there is a possibility that the play could be seen as an indictment of both African American and Native American communities, and even white Americans. I hope that the tour offers a forum for communication, that it provides a vessel of understanding and communication. What I want is for the play to provide a point of civil discourse, where we can actually sit and talk to one another without playing the victim card, or ‘my oppression was greater than yours,’ or where we can sit down in a council meeting and be able to listen to one another and in a way start “feeling the heart” of one another. We need to be able to talk about how it “feels” to be a victim of racism and how it “feels” to have the joy of overcoming racism and the obstacles that are placed in front of you due to racism. We need to share those stories and share that excitement. That is what I am hoping will

PW: You said an interesting about being most afraid of having the play in the West, what is the difference in producing or having a play performed in different parts of the country?
WSYRJR: Well, first of all you have to remember that colonialism began here, in New England. You have buildings here that are three or four hundred years old. The state of Montana is only 112 years old. The effects of colonization still exist in the West. In Montana, you still have people who use the word “colored” when talking about black people. You still have the phrase “our Indians” amongst some people out west. It is a whole different mind set…because if you were to use those phrases here in Providence and say “Shaun is a good colored man” or “our colored people” you would have a fight on your hands because it is inconceivable to refer to a human being as having the status of property. It still happens that way in the West. You still have the romanticism of homesteaders ‘settling’ the west and bringing ‘civilization’. “The first white male born in the territory.” This is not to say everybody out west believes this, but there are still some who practice this belief.

When Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers shows up in some of these communities, it may really be coming from out of the blue because it is a Native’s perspective about make. African American communities and other communities that are not indigenous to the ‘West’. A lot of the hostility was generated after the Civil War as free slaves from the South moved west competing for resources, freedom. Then, around the same time, you have Native communities that were under attack for their resources and lives. That was a little over 100 years ago, so it hasn’t been that long.

Also, remember that the play deals with African American and Native American blood, not just Buffalo Soldiers. Buffalo Soldiers is a subject that is not held in a romantic view by the Native Americans, and most of America has never really dealt with the subject of African and Native American lineage and life.

PW: Well, that was one of the things I found more interesting. When I hear Buffalo Soldiers it is a very romantic idea of the old west. Brave, courageous, adventurous…
WSYRJR: Trustworthy, Diligent. But if you would say that to a Native person from the west you would get a completely different reaction. Myth and Romanticism. I don’t want to generalize the tribes, because they might all have different opinions. I can’t speak for all of them. But what I have witnessed in the past is a very delicate situation. The legacy of the buffalo soldiers is in some ways similar to the French who fought in the Revolution and Louisiana; their whole history has been diminished. You don’t hear about Champlain and his voyages. American history is at a place where you can discover facts such as these, and it shakes your whole foundation of belief. A lot of people, however, don’t want that foundation cracked. Especially since that foundation is so young.

In Rhode Island that foundation is three to four hundred years old but out West it is barely over a hundred years old, but not the oral Indigenous histories. The “History of the West” from a non-Indigenous perspective is still very young. And it all goes back to a very simple thing: how do you receive change? Life is in flux, it is always constantly changing. There is a duality to so many things. We have a country that has a tremendous amount of food supply, but we still have homeless people who can barely eat. We have millionaires and homeless. We condemn others for crimes but can’t acknowledge our own crimes. It is really a strange duality that we create in this country. It is how we perceive things. Justice and Punishment are two different things. But, what is amazing to me is that eventually these two realities will collide. Push comes to shove, and we will have a collision again. What happens in the next collision we don’t know yet.

PW: Well, that becomes the next question. How do you deal with that change?
WSYRJR: Well the answer to that question is how do you describe yourself as a human being? Not what you look like, but what you do. And that idea has never been put forward. I always think of Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation”, and how the people interviewed in the book talk of sacrifice. We don’t have that level of sacrifice anymore. We are all leaning toward self-centeredness. It is really a horrific cycle that we have created. Everything is disposable today. From kitchen fixtures to what we make. We start to treat our own people as being disposable. I know that sounds horrific, but it does happen. Sacrificing and disposing are not the same thing.

Even religion is not the same. How do you pray? Do the words you say when you pray really reflect what you mean? Do you try to live by a code of conduct you have set for yourself? I see a lot of conflict…and the question is not so much…the development of economy is the development of spirituality. You don’t need money, an architectural structure, or leader to have god hear your prayers you just have to pray. That is what is at stake right now. Not a fake spirituality, but a REAL spirituality where you live humanity and human kindness. I think about this every day. I reflect and say, “Oh, I blew that one,” “Yeah, I should not have said that but I said it anyway,” “I didn’t mean to do that, but I did it.” I go through all of these small questions everyday. Did I do the right thing? Was it a good thing?

Sacrifice is the giving of yourself to help someone else, or something else-that’s not yours. I try to give of myself and whatever I have to help others. I’m not looking for a reward. Just the hope it was the right thing to do.

It is like that for Craig and Brent in the play; Craig has clarity, Brent does not. And
that’s the struggle.

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