A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Darrell Dennis performs “Tales of an Urban Indian” at Native Voices at the Autry. / Tony Dontscheff for Silvia Mautner Photography

Written and performed by Canadian playwright/actor Darrell Dennis, the West Coast premiere of “Tales of an Urban Indian” closes the 10th-anniversary season at Native Voices at the Autry. First workshopped nearly 10 years ago, the piece made its world premiere at the New York Public Theatre last March.

The semi-autobiographical play is also the basis of Dennis’ hit Canadian television show of the same name. Concerning the journey of a young native growing up on the reservation and migrating to the city in search of opportunity, the piece is an odd, chiaroscuro mix of funny and anguished. Sometimes, Dennis blurs the line between humorous self-deprecation and lacerating self-hatred – midway through a joyride, he slams us into a wall.

The play begins with stock “Indian” images projected across the back of the stage: the noble savage, the idealized Indian maiden, good ol’ Tonto, the contented Land O’ Lakes squaw, the freakish cartoon Cleveland Indians logo…. Dennis enters silently and stands observing these pictures – and the large, mostly Native audience erupts in huge laughs.

For the next 90 minutes, the charismatic Dennis is a cast of dozens as he tracks the strange, twisting path of his protagonist from carefree childhood on the reservation to drug addiction and alcoholism on skid row. From the outset, his tales of his character’s early life give us the rhythm and refrains of the rest of the show. One of the funniest vignettes is his “talking hands” rendition of “an eagle ate my homework”; one of the darkest is of his complicity in the suicide of a close boyhood friend.

Careening through life at breakneck speed, with nobody driving, somehow he lives through crash after devastating crash until Survivor Guilt brings him face to face with the inescapable knowledge that our reality is a product and projection of our own choices and interpretations.

Dennis has a wondrous ear for language and voices, and his transitions from character to character are mesmerizing. His relaxed, almost self-effacing demeanor ingratiates him with his audience, allowing him to make dangerous and heart-wrenching revelations which, even if not factual, are unmistakably true.

“Tales of an Urban Indian” plays through Sunday, March 28, at the Wells Fargo Theater, Autry Center of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. To purchase tickets, call (866) 468-3399 or visit www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org.