Photo courtesy of Native Voices

Disrupting Outdated Stereotypes of Native Americans with Theater

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Native Voices tells stories by and about indigenous people at The Autry Museum. New plays take the stage this month.

On a recent morning, a group of actors inside the Autry Museum’s Wells Fargo Theater begins their first reading of Tara Moses’ play, “Quantum.” It’s Thanksgiving onstage. A white family learns that they don’t have the Native American heritage they claim. A multi-ethnic couple embraces their diversity, while their college-aged, adopted daughter laments not knowing her own background. Elsewhere, a Native American student is on the phone. As the play unfolds, the lives of these characters intertwine in a gripping story that brings together contemporary issues like the adoption of Native American children and the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Moses is a theater director who began writing plays about two years ago. This is the second time that she has submitted a play to the Native Voices Annual Festival of New Plays, and the first time her work was selected for a staged reading. Moses says “Quantum” is inspired, in part, by her grandfather, who was Mescalero Apache.

“At the age of 2, he was stolen from his home and adopted by an all-white family in Utah,” she says. “Until the day he died, he had no idea of his Mescalero family, his roots, his language. He lost it all.”

In addition to “Quantum,” the two-day festival — running from May 29-30 — also features the family-centered drama “Flowers of Hawaii” by Lee Cataluna and the musical “Missing Peace” by Kalani Queypo and Kyle Puccia. The following weekend, the festival takes the shows to the La Jolla Playhouse.

For a quarter century — 20 years of which have been spent at the Autry — Native Voices has been telling stories by and about Native American, First Nations and Alaska Native people. They have showcased a wide range of Native American theater and given space to both up-and-coming and established talent.

Native Voices co-founder Randy Reinholz, who is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, dreamt up the idea for the theater company. Reinholz was teaching acting at Illinois State University and interested in working on a Native American play, but in his search for one, he came up short.

“It became clear that there just weren’t that many pieces being done professionally by Native people,” he said in a phone interview in February.

That realization led him to create Native Voices, along with his wife, Jean Bruce Scott. Reinholz is the producing artistic director of Native Voices at the Autry, and Scott is the producing executive director.

“We could present stories from contemporary Native people, featuring Native actors, and start to get the story out that there was more going on in Indian Country than cowboys and Indians of a century ago.”

Randy Reinholz, Native Voices co-founder

In the beginning, Reinholz looked for a Native American play that could be performed by students. The ones he found featured mostly Native characters. That presented another challenge: Would they have to cast non-Native actors in the roles? Instead, they brought together the playwrights for readings and conversation.

“A couple things happened,” he says. “First, the playwrights really enjoyed seeing the work up on its feet in a reading situation. They enjoyed meeting each other and not being the one token Native playwright at a multicultural conference, but a gathering of Native playwrights.”

They were also able to connect with Native American students at the school.

During the first initial years of Native Voices, Reinholz accepted a position at San Diego State University and began meeting with the Autry. The consensus was that Native Voices’ work could help modernize representation of Native Americans inside institutions like museums. It’s also worth noting that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Los Angeles County is home to the largest population of urban Native Americans within the U.S.

“We could present stories from contemporary Native people, featuring Native actors, and start to get the story out that there was more going on in Indian Country than cowboys and Indians of a century ago,” Reinholz says.

Since the early 2000s, Native Voices has had a contract with the Actors’ Equity Association and has helped increase the number of Native American actors in the union, which provides access to health care and retirement savings, among other benefits.

Native Voices produces one play a year at the Autry. In addition, they also host the Festival of New Plays and a Short Play Festival annually. The Native Voices Artist Ensemble comprises roughly 50 members and helps provide job opportunities for Native actors. Native Voices also works with organizations like the Dramatists Guild to increase the visibility of Native artists.

“We do get to hear so many different voices, from so many different tribes through the years. That in itself is growth.”

Lee Cataluna, author of “Flowers of Hawaii”

In recent years, the theater world has seen the rise of Native American playwrights like Larissa FastHorse and Mary Kathryn Nagle, both of whom have had works performed at Native Voices. In 2017, Reinholz’s “Off the Rails” became the first play by a Native writer to premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The following year, three plays written by Native women were produced in the state of Oregon.

“We’re really moving forward,” Reinholz says.

Cataluna, who lives in Hawaii and is Native Hawaiian, found out about Native Voices while at the La Jolla Playhouse, for whom she wrote a commission, “Home of the Brave,” for the theater’s POP Tour. She submitted “Flowers of Hawaii” to the New Play Festival.

“It’s a play I never thought would leave Hawaii,” says Cataluna, who is also a journalist for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the author of several books. “It’s not my story. It’s a story that found me. So, it’s also other people’s stories, and how it connects us is really an amazing experience.”

Actor Tsulan Cooper has a role in the staged reading of “Flowers of Hawaii” and has been a Native Voices ensemble member for several years. She describes the company as a place where artists can have “an artistic home” as well as a place where they can grow.

“We do get to hear so many different voices, from so many different tribes through the years. That in itself is growth,” she says. “It really helps yourself to see things from many viewpoints, knowing that we’re one.”

Native Voices 25th Annual Festival of New Plays

Wednesday, May 29, 2019 / 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. / The Autry

Thursday, May 30, 2019 / 7:30 p.m. / The Autry

Tickets: Free / More information

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