Stand-Off at HWY #37 Theater Review
A thee-a-tuh reviewer’s work is never done: On Friday night it was the Pasadena Playhouse’s tribute to Gene Kelly and on Saturday Gene Autry, going from Singin’ in the Rain to the singing cowboy. Or, to be more precise, to a world premiere by Native Voices, the Native American Theatre Company that specializes in presenting original aboriginal plays at the Autry Museum. Tuscarora dramatist Vickie Ramirez’s Stand-Off at Hwy # 37 is a powerhouse of a production about the struggle for tribal rights with searing, hard-hitting moments that would bring a twinkle to the eyes -- and a clench to the fists -- of “Proletarian Theatre” apostles, such as Clifford Odets, Bertolt Brecht, John Howard Lawson and Peter Weiss.
The plot -- which was inspired by actual events that affected the playwright’s family and tribe -- revolves around a bypass road that is being built on reservation land in Upstate New York. The construction is taking place against the will of the area’s indigenous people, who diminutive Aunt Bev (LaVonne Rae Andrews of the Tlingit-Raven Clan) explains consists of members of what has been called the Iroquois Confederacy. American Indian activists, including the goofy but sincere Darrin Jamieson (the spot on Kalani Queypo, who is Blackfeet and Hawaiian) and the strident Sandra Henhawk (the stellar stage/screen actress DeLanna Studi, Cherokee), join Aunt Bev in protesting the building of the road.
One man’s “keeping the peace” is another’s “maintaining law and order,” and to do so (take your pick of which!), the National Guard is dispatched to the contested site under the command of an archetypal “paleface” in the John Wayne mold, Captain Donald Hewitt (TV/film actor Matt Kirkwood). His uniformed, armed troops include the African American female Linda Baldwin (Tinasha LaRaye of Oklahoma City) and the lynchpin character, Thomas Lee Doxdater (Eagle Young, Hopi), who belongs to the besieged Tuscarora tribe and was raised nearby, with Darrin.
As the tension of the impasse rises Ramirez tosses a scoop-seeking New York Times reporter of Hong Kong Chinese ancestry, Evelyn Lee (thespian Fran de Leon, a Filipina), into the combustible mix. The playwright, whose work has been presented at Manhattan’s esteemed Public Theater, lets things simmer and then raises the heat to a boil. Seemingly innocuous Aunt Bev places her chair near the reservation boundary, right in the line of the (offstage) construction crew, which becomes a major bone of contention, as the National Guardsmen ( and woman!) try to get her to move. But when she refuses to do so, it turns out that the not-so-innocent aunty’s placement of her chair is a highly strategic act of feng shui civil disobedience. When the troops try to remove her Aunt Bev raises the stakes by brandishing a traditional war club.
As Captain Hewitt tries to physically relocate the elder woman, Doxdater takes action. Your plot spoiler adverse critic won’t ruin the surprise for you with a plot spoiler, but suffice it to say that what Doxdater does is arguably one of the most dramatic moments audiences will likely see onstage during this theatre season in any of the playhouses across what’s now called “America.” Doxdater’s revolutionary act sets the stage (literally) for the rest of Ramirez’s skillfully scribed one-acter, as the dramatis personae, including offstage tribal and women’s councils, the National Guard and press, must come to grips with how to react to the protagonist’s precipitous action.
There’s no doubt that the aboriginal bard is exploring and presenting a “ripped-from-the-headlines” type indigenous clash, as Natives must, once again, fight for their land to fend off what is referred to as “an occupying force.” But Ramirez also has something else up her tricky dramatist’s sleeve: Every one of her characters is beset by divided loyalties and mixed motives, which is the real leitmotif of her all-too-human drama.
Doxdater, who wears a U.S. uniform, has sworn an oath to Uncle Sam he feels compelled to uphold. But at the same time he feels a tribal allegiance, that -- as James Dean put it so well in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause -- “You’re tearing me apart!” And as the Tuscarora acts he becomes a rebel with a cause, pursuing a warrior’s code far older than the U.S.A., and the course of action he takes tears him -- and his tribe -- in two.
There’s also more to Aunt Bev, the elder whom Doxdater had sought to protect, than meets the eye. The shrewd Captain Hewitt exposes the somewhat ditzy-seeming aunty, who is so slyly, deftly depicted by the merry Andrews, as a longtime protester whose activism goes back to the late ’60s and early ’70s, to the Alcatraz occupation and that other stand-off: Wounded Knee. But when push comes to shove, Bev does not seem above washing her hands of -- if not selling down the proverbial river -- her would-be savior, as Doxdater’s bold -- or rash? -- deed seems to place the cause, and herself, in a bad light and jeopardy.
Sandra Henhawk tries to stand by Doxdater, even as this becomes more and more difficult to do. The gifted DeLanna Studi’s depiction of the militant is complex and nuanced, as she is revealed to be [SPOILER ALERT!] an urban Indian who did not grow up on the res. Her A.I.M.-like militancy aims at fighting for her downtrodden people’s rights, but also to compensate for not having been raised in a more authentic, indigenous way. Her zealotry leads the henpecking Henhawk to not only taunt, but to exaggerate the truth, in an effort to win her embattled tribes’ struggle.
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The lie she tells the Times’ Lee to lure her from Manhattan to Upstate N.Y. is pretty droll. And like some leaders I observed in the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, which I covered for Radio Australia, Radio New Zealand, Honolulu Weekly, etc., Henhawk conflates her own standing and status in the political pecking order with that of the cause, as she strives to be the proverbial high man (or woman) on the totem pole. Truly an excellent, insightful portrayal by DeLanna, whose Uncle Wes Studi played the title role in 1993’s “Geronimo: An American Legend”, acted opposite Daniel Day-Lewis as Magua in 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans”, appeared with Gary Farmer in 1989’s “Powwow Highway”, 2007’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, portrayed the chief in James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar”, and will be seen in this year’s comedy “A Million Ways to Die in the West”, directed by Seth McFarlane, co-starring Liam Neeson and Charlize Theron.
Baldwin, too, is divided within herself. As a Black woman she pointedly reminds all that she was not one of the “invaders” that stole a continent away from its original inhabitants. The National Guardswoman responds to Aunt Bev’s tales of an ancient Native female warrior culture and her comments about the oppression of African Americans reminded this scribbler of Marlon Brando’s quip that “it’s not an ouch contest.” Nevertheless, Baldwin has sold her soul to the company store by joining, so to speak, the U.S. Cavalry and like many disadvantaged minorities before her, views the military as a civil service stepping stone out of the hood. LaRaye sparkles onstage in her role.
Evelyn Lee is likewise divided within herself; the Asian-American reporter, too, knows something about discrimination. But as far as journalistic ethics go, getting and telling a front page story that may win her a Pulitzer is nearest and dearest to her opportunistic heart. She does work for the N.Y. Times after all, the paper that ballyhooed Bush/Cheney/ Rumsfeld/Rice lies about Iraq’s imaginary WMDs, thus raising Truman Capote’s notion of the “nonfiction novel” to new heights.
Even Captain Hewitt is not one-dimensional; no redneck is he, straight out of central casting for Mississippi Burning. Hewitt, who is a nondescript Caucasian, is played by Kirkwood as having some intelligence. He’s not a banjo strumming Deliverance dimwit; he can see the Native side of the story, although he is duty bound to pursue his oath as a soldier who knows the chain -- and chains -- of command.
Oddly enough, the most stalwart of the characters is none other than Queypo’s lovable goofball, Darrin. He’s a bit like Shakespeare’s Polonius, the fool who speaks sagely about “to thine own self be true” in Hamlet. In his wayward youth, this lumpenized, troubled child, shall we say, smoked too much of the ol’ peace pipe -- and he’s still on parole for committing crimes. But Darrin has learned the error of his ways and by joining the protest he’s trying to make up for his previous profligacy. When the chips are down, unlike the far more educated Henhawk and longtime activist Aunt Bev, our man Darrin heroically rises to the occasion -- or, well, at least he tries to. Bravo, Mssr. Queypo!
Ultimately, this reviewer suspects that the playwright, too, is bedeviled by divided loyalties and has mixed motives. Ramirez courageously unleashes the dogs of war and sets her characters on a collision course. But as they head for the brink, she struggles to reign them in. In doing so, she reminded me of Mick Jagger’s lyrics in Street Fighting Man:
“But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man.”
But what can a poor girl do except to write for the stage? Cause in snoozing America there’s just no place for a proletarian theatre writing woman.
Aunt Bev’s exposition as the curtain lifts and before it drops violates rule #1 of dramatics: “Don’t tell me, show me!” But these, dear reader, are mere quibbles, and should not dissuade you from enjoying this thought provoking work, with its ensemble cast so ably directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, a simple yet effective set (including, overhead, a Congressional resolution) by scenic designer Jeff McLaughlin, plus some projections designed by Adam Flemming. Los Angeles has North America’s largest urban Indian population -- but to paraphrase those old wry rye bread ads, you don’t have to be Native to love this play, which is for any theatergoer who thrives on great drama, fab acting, quirky characters and a theatre of conscience and consciousness. Auds should not be stand-offish about seeing Ramirez’s sizzling Stand-Off at HWY #37.
Native Voices at the Autry presents Stand-Off at HWY #37 on Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. through March 16 at the Wells Fargo Theater, Wells Fargo Theater, Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462. (323)667-2000, ext. 299.