Taking our seats in the Rasmuson Theater on a weekend morning at the National Museum of the American Indian, my children and friends point to the screen dominating the simple set on stage. As a series of illustrated portraits rotate on the screen, we read their descriptions aloud: Maria Tallchief (Osage), ballerina; Wes Studi (Cherokee), actor; John Herrington (Chickasaw), astronaut and others—leaders in the arts, sciences and politics.
The house lights dim and three young actors—all with Native heritage—walk on stage. They solemnly gesture skyward in unison as they turn North, East, South and West, evoking not only a sense of place but a tone of respect and reverence. A half hour later, however, I was on my feet, clapping and shouting in response to the actors’ rousing call. We were encouraged to raise our voices to “claim” our names and identify who we are.
“Hear Me Say My Name,” an original multimedia performance, is being presented at the museum in Washington, D.C., through May 2020 for the public and scheduled school groups. Set against a backdrop of vibrant color, imagery, music and Indigenous language, the play is a collaboration between the museum and the Smithsonian Associates’ Discovery Theater.
The play examines the negative impact of stereotypes and shows how open conversations can help resolve misunderstandings. In several scenes, the actors portray the experiences of young Native people as they develop their own perspectives on race and identity.
“We wanted a dynamic access point to engage with students about stereotypes and identity, such as use of American Indian imagery for school mascots—very complicated topics,” explains Mandy Van Heuvelen (Mnicoujou Lakota), NMAI’s Cultural Interpreter Program coordinator. “The play is only 35 minutes to ideally serve as a point of departure for visitors to then experience the rest of the museum. We use imagery from the ‘Americans’ exhibition in the play and offer self-guided materials to teachers and students to connect the two experiences.”
Van Heuvelen says that the museum chose a play as the platform for these complicated topics because her team had seen that the Discovery Theater had successfully engaged all ages about difficult subject matters, such as civil rights and cultural identity. Founded in 1964 as the Smithsonian Puppet Theater, the acclaimed Discovery Theater produces approximately a dozen original productions a year that serve as a “gateway” experience to Smithsonian topics of history, culture and science for children, families and educators. One such production was “African Roots/Latino Soul,” a partnership with 30 local students in grades four to 12. The play is based on the original writings of the students, many of whom come from or have parents who come from Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.
“This type of production is an incredible opportunity to explore topics central to the museum’s [educational] mission,” says Discovery Theater director and co-playwright Roberta Gasbarre. Yet, she says, “It was bold of the museum to approach us with the idea of a play. It took the vision of the museum’s education team to realize it. The inherent collaboration of the process is much like ensemble work. You need the exchange to make it happen.”
Gasbarre, who marks her 20th year as director, says that the museum wanted a multimedia experience for visitors that both challenges their assumptions about American Indians and empowers them to learn. Gasbarre felt strongly that she could not create such a production without a partner, so she reached out to playwright, interdisciplinary artist and activist Ty Defoe (Giizhiig, Ojibwe and Oneida Nations), with whom she had collaborated on storytelling and performance projects. “I respect his artistic rigor and cultural knowledge and the fact that he works closely with tribal communities,” she says. “He could help us to dismantle that anticipation of the audience to learn a certain thing, meet them where they are and then move beyond it.
The script took more than a year to write, says Gasbarre. It was developed with input from museum staff and local Native community members. Gasbarre explains that the museum “came to us armed with the experience of its Cultural Interpreters as well as feedback about what questions visitors ask—focusing mainly on stereotypes and identity—which end up being two sides of the same coin.”
“We tried to reach consensus on the core themes and approach to the script,” says Gasbarre. “There was much thoughtful dialogue around the concept of identity and how we should not let people’s assumptions define us. We should have the right to ‘claim our name,’ or our individual identity, and show how we benefit from learning about one another.”
Much like the play’s production and script, says Defoe, “The play title itself was the result of collaboration. It is evocative and honors the people who held many conversations around it.”
“Theater has the power to immerse and educate. It is where artistry meets culture,” he says. “We intentionally included Indigenous words and imagery; the colors and the lens through which you see the play is purposeful. We attempted to evoke the kind of experience that museums try to create every day.”
The transitions from scene to scene include dialogue, dance, imagery and recitation of Indigenous words. In one scene, the actors ask the audience for answers to the questions that appear on the screen behind them during a game show titled, “Stand Up for the Real.” One true-or-false question asked is whether or not Native Americans are citizens. My 12-year-old son was one of the audience members to respond: “The answer is true! Hello, it’s true! Native Americans are citizens!”
“We followed the core tenets of museum theater: significance, authenticity/accuracy, interactivity and relevance,” explains Gasbarre. “It is important to consider on behalf of the audience, ‘What does this mean to me? Why do I care?’”
Defoe says one scene was inspired by his visit to a Yup’ik tribal community in Newtok, Alaska, whose members are relocating due to the impact of climate change. “They are deeply grounded in their culture and language despite all that is happening; they want to talk about how the arts can help people. So the dance with the blue ‘water silk’ acknowledges the fight of many Native communities to preserve their land, water, traditions and language.”
Gasbarre says that the “intensity” of the play’s content has resulted in spontaneous “talk back” moments following the performance during which audience members converse with the theater staff about what they have just seen. Ideally, she says, the play will run beyond the spring, as the producers evaluate attendance and feedback. She also hopes to add to the current roster of Native performers. “It is incredibly potent when someone can portray personal experience,” she says.
Defoe agrees: “It is much more authentic when the actors place their own truths inside of the characters. For some, it inspires the declaration to claim their own Native heritage, and for others, it’s healing to share their personal experience with the audience.”
When my group of friends and family, ages 5 to late 40s, left the theater, they were all talking at once. My friend and I both happen to work at the museum and our children are of Native American and Hispanic heritage. Our preteen kids are already learning how to navigate others’ assumptions about who they are.
The messages of the play are a familiar part of our lives. The scenes depicting the actors’ confrontations about stereotypes resonated with my eldest son. For me, the play conjured up memories of last fall: my refusal to allow my son to wear an “Indian headdress” in school to “honor Thanksgiving” as well as my son’s resignation as he refused tickets to a home game of the Washington, D.C., football team.
Luckily, these painful moments led to positive exchanges with teachers and friends. Walking out of the theater listening to the lively chatter, I could see how this play could do the same.