November is Native American Heritage Month but according to the Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective Project, it’s the worst season of the year. From Columbus Day (only rarely observed as Indigenous Peoples Day), to Halloween (“all those Pocahotties” in feathers and suede) and of course the noble savage celebrated at Thanksgiving, the autumn months are certifiably cringe-worthy for Native Americans. That’s one of the first things we learn in “Don’t Feed the Indians,” Safe Harbors’ very tongue-in-cheek “Divine Comedy Pageant” with a deadly serious message in this season of recidivist misappropriation. If you can’t guess what that message is (hint: Art. 3 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), this history/civics lesson masquerading as a lounge act might jump out at you like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, or rather like a living breathing Native American coming out from all of the guises he has been made to assume over the last four centuries”¦
“Performance” is the operative trope of this show that follows the Fry Bread 49 Singers and Dancers and their self-described “shitty show” of Indian maidens and chiefs through a purgatorial casino circuit somewhere in the West. On stage they go for easy applause, with skits like “Keeping up with Pocahontas” and historical reenactments of the “discovery” of America; backstage they lament acting careers that never went anywhere because they were never “Indian enough” for casting agents or deemed too “Native” to have broad appeal. They are only too familiar with the stereotypes they are asked to play: Red Dirt, the savage Indian warrior (Nic Billey), Tom Tom Pork Chop, the good natured joker (John Scott Richardson), the silver-voiced Moon Night Child (Henu Josephine Tarrant) and of course a batty Bird Woman (Danielle Soames). Before entering the basement theater at La MaMa, audiences are introduced to more during a pre-show tour of a kind of human zoo featuring a pow wow dancer, a homeless veteran selling “genuine” injun beads and a wrinkled squaw hawking cigars”¦
The show is written by Murielle Borst-Tarrant in a caustically ironic vein that has limited patience with Dante. She and her husband Kevin Tarrant play our guides “Bea” and “Virg,” faithful to Dante in name only (their comic shtick owes more to George Burns and Gracie Allen than any Venetian or Native American, for that matter) and the loosely drawn narrative arc, which follows a progression from a hell of colonial atrocities to a paradise of sorts, is only structurally supported by The Divine Comedy. However, the content is downright infernal at times: a uniquely Native American hell from the first massacres of Pueblo communities in the 16th century to the Indian boarding schools meant to “civilize” and “Christianize” Indigenous children beginning in the 19th century, to the myriad popular appropriations of Indian culture in Hollywood and advertising in the 20th century, not to mention personal stories of rape and abuse from the cast. The show begins in a fictional Dante’s Lounge in Nevada, but the only vestige here of the original text is its Judeo-Christian worldview, which in fact is the motivating fiction of those same horrors.
Instead, Borst-Tarrant’s mordant humor and the disabused ease with which she sends up cliche after cliche, threads these acts and vignettes together (she delivers her portrayal of a self-styled “indigenologist” casting agent – whose cred comes from once having attended Burning Man – with particular relish). But they are knit into a whole by the cast’s collective engagement behind the show’s message, which is, as delineated by the UN Declaration (a copy is inserted into the program), that “Indigenous peoples have the the right to self-determination and the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage.” When the cast’s frustration with all the “tom tom stuff” they are forced to perform finally erupts into a burst of rage, with raised fists and chanting, the performance drops all pretense and fills instead with a human and political urgency that is authentic and contagious (I confess I bought a teeshirt in the lobby afterward). Borst-Tarrant’s tone hesitates between pathos and bathos but her writing is most powerful when she plows one right into the other to underscore the interconnectedness of human experience, such as in a scene marrying the tragic dignity of the rendition speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce with an audition by Moon Light Child for a role in a play as the chief’s niece, which she proves she can play smartly in a range of comically exaggerated styles.
Although the pageant travels through locations in Nevada and North Dakota, the centerpiece of the bare set is the outline of a teepee against the Manhattan skyline (design by Louis Mofsie): a visual reminder that New York City has the largest Native American population of anywhere in the US and its land was shaped by Native lives long before it was bulldozed into the concrete canyons of the Rockefellers and Carnegies. The tarpaulin also serves as a projection screen for dozens of images of Native American history and culture. Most pass by unexplained and some need no explanation, but in the show’s Paradise section, the names and faces of Native American actors and athletes who shaped American culture without our always recognizing their ancestry (Jim Thorpe, Wayne Newton”¦) receive silent honors. The cast boasts a collective background encompassing ten different Native American tribes and lengthy resumes in theater and music in Native and non-Native companies and projects (Kevin Tarrant is also the founder and lead singer of the nationally recognized Silver-Cloud Singers). Yet Paradise, such as the actors describe it in their final testimonies, remains elusive, while so fundamentally basic: to be allowed to be yourself, Native and American, in all of those possible iterations. Or as Virg sums it up, “Not to sing another damn sad song and dragging the bones of my ancestors out.” Safe Harbors does both but hopefully these performances have raised awareness rather than pity. I could say Amen to Virg’s sentiment, but at the risk of having to educate myself through this pageant all over again.
Don’t Feed the Indians – A Divine Comedy Pageant! runs to November 19, 2017. More production information can be found here.