Not only does “Where We Belong” follow an unusual route of commitments to one nonprofit theater company after another, but it is also the first national tour organized by Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theater, which produced the a digital version of the play last year. (The tour is produced in association with DC’s Folger Theater, where it will make its final stop in 2024; touring shows are usually produced by commercial entities.)
The project addresses several practical and values-driven issues facing the theater world as it struggles to emerge from the seismic upheaval of the pandemic shutdown. It links distant companies looking for new joint offer models. And it offers audiences across the country a play with an inclusive theme and accessibility plan for Indigenous peoples and other diverse audiences.
“It’s not a one-time event,” Woolly Mammoth artistic director Maria Goyanes said of the tour’s long-term goals. “It’s trying to get deeper community engagement with these people.”
“Where We Belong” was created for a brief stint at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2019. Sayet, whose Aboriginal heritage is Mohegan, wrote the autobiographical piece as a way to reconcile his feelings about Shakespeare and colonialism at the time. that she was studying for a higher degree in Britain. . After the subsequent streaming version of Woolly, Goyanes encouraged Sayet to continue developing the work, with Mei Ann Teo remaining as director. A trial run in October at the Baltimore Center Stage was held to refine its extended live streaming capabilities.
“Maria really believed it was a play, that it worked like a play,” said Sayet, assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. “It’s part of a social awakening that, moving forward, we need to understand Indigenous stories on the land we stand on.”
Sayet said she sees herself much more as a director and catalyst for other artists than a performer. But the idea of a “Where We Belong” tour came to her as she considered ways to incorporate social activism into the business. “I actually started getting interested in touring once I started writing the ‘Community Responsibility Rider,'” she explained.
This enthusiasm turned into a two-page document listing several conditions that theaters had to agree to. “If it does not already exist, the presenter agrees to develop a plan to authentically engage in an ongoing, long-term relationship with the Indigenous peoples whose lands they occupy and/or the local urban/Indigenous Indian population “, reads the agreement. “It is important to Madeline Sayet and Woolly Mammoth that this tour does not become its own colonial force, but rather fosters current relationships between theaters and the Indigenous peoples whose lands the theater occupies.”
Among Sayet’s stipulations was “public acknowledgment of past instances of redface at the institution, and a commitment not to present any programming in the future that includes redface” – this is the practice, now widely discredited, of non-Native actors playing Native parts, and sometimes darkening their skin for the roles.
The addendum includes several other provisions, including a commitment to provide more work for Indigenous artists; a display in the lobby of an event or theater created with the help of local tribes that uses indigenous tribal languages; showcasing the work of a local Indigenous playwright or other artist via a stand-alone event; and distributing free tickets for “Where We Belong” to “self-identified Aboriginal people, to include both single ticket purchasers and larger groups”. For larger groups, theaters must also provide a travel subsidy.
“Every theater company that produces the show must agree to this values-based document,” Goyanes said in an interview.
Paige Price, artistic director of the Philadelphia Theater Company, said she was looking forward to kicking off the tour. “Everyone knows Philadelphia for the American Revolution and the birth of the country. But we don’t often talk about what happened here before. It’s a very rich subject,” she said, adding that touring a Native American play opens up new perspectives.
“It allows an artist like Madeline, who may not have the contacts, to be introduced to a whole bunch of art directors,” Price said. continued. “And because the piece is aimed at people outside of the old circles, it’s a perfect example of an artist learning to have something to say and gaining a platform for it.”
As for agreeing to Sayet’s list of prerequisites, Price said, “It was long enough that we had to bring it to the board.” In the process, she added, staff reviewed its nearly 50-year production history for possible examples of redface. “It’s an honest look at how we did theater,” she said. “Whether you did it or not, that’s not the question. It’s owning things.
Ultimately, the council agreed to Sayet’s terms. The next step is to implement them. As the tour progresses through the year, the question remains how well the production attracts sought-after audience members among the 574 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States.
The price, for its part, is uncertain, but eager to see. “It’s anyone’s guess,” she said, “how that’s going to pan out.”
where we belong, written and performed by Madeline Sayet. Directed by Mei Ann Teo. First leg of the tour April 15-May 8 at the Philadelphia Theater Company, 480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. 215-985-0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.