A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Jane Lind (Jessie) and Lily Gladstone (Carlisle) in "The Frybread Queen," which gets its world premiere March 12 at the Autry National Center / photo by Terry Cyr

The next great theater movement is here. African-American theater had the 1960s, Latino theater had the 1970s and, thanks to Randy Reinholz and Jean Bruce Scott, Native American theater has the 2000s. They founded Native Voices at the Autry, the only equity theater company in the country dedicated exclusively to developing and presenting works by Native American playwrights, and are its producing artistic and producing executive directors, respectively. Since they brought Native Voices to the Autry National Center in Griffith Park, Los Angeles has been at the forefront of this movement.

Though Native American theater has grown up here in Los Angeles, the groundwork was laid in Illinois. In 1993, Randy, a member of the Choctaw nation, was directing a play at Illinois State University and was asked to sit on its non-Western theater committee. “You’re Native American. Maybe you can find some Native American plays for us to think about producing?” they asked him.

He confidently undertook that task, only to find that there were only five published plays written by Native playwrights, two in the United States and three in Canada. In 1994, Randy and Jean organized the first series of readings at ISU, bringing these Native American playwrights together for the first time.

“It went really well,” remembers Randy. “The playwrights had heard of each other but hadn’t met. They said that it was really great to meet and get to see each others’ work, and that we had to do this again.”

And they did. The third year they hosted the festival — now named Native Voices —in New York at the American Indian Community House, they were finally able to get more Native people involved. Each year they were able to work with brand new plays and playwrights. The community of artists was growing. That was also the year when Jean and Randy first connected with the Autry.

Between 1997 and ’98, the Autry was preparing an exhibition on the portrayal of American Indians throughout U.S. history. They came to Jean and Randy to recommend plays that should be presented and tour with the exhibition, called “Powerful Images.”

The play that was chosen, “Urban Tattoo,” by Marie Clement, garnered a tremendous response, good houses and great reviews. The LA Weekly called it a “tribute to warrior women everywhere.” This all led to the Autry asking if Jean, Randy and Native Voices wanted to participate in a three-year theater initiative.

“We said yes, and that was the beginning of our partnership,” recounts Jean. “Before those three years were up, they asked us to stay, so we became the resident theater company at the Autry, and it’s been our artistic home since.”

Over the past 12 years, the company has presented fully staged productions of 18 critically acclaimed new plays, including 13 world premieres, seven playwright retreats and 13 new play festivals, and more than 100 workshops and public staged readings of new plays by Native American playwrights featuring Native American actors. It has worked with and continues to collaborate with the Public Theater in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the La Jolla Playhouse.

All of this has been a large boon to Native American theater artists. Jean believes they “have a community of more than 100 actors that could act on any stage in the country.” And the evidence is there. Over the last decade, alumni of Native Voices have been seen on Broadway, at Steppenwolf, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and at many other high profile theaters across the country.

But the Native Voices creative process has always been about the playwright. “When we started, a lot of the playwrights hadn’t been produced,” Randy points out, “and now they have four or five equity productions under their belts. Now the writers are in the theater, they see each others’ work, so that community is creating a real art form rather than a piece of art that stands alone. And that’s more ‘Indian’ anyway: the idea that the individuals are getting together and elevating the whole community.”

It is this community-based approach that has allowed the Native American theater movement to really take hold. According to Jean, “over the last five years our actors and directors have been getting together in little ‘writers groups,’ and there’s this great bubbling up of creative energy that’s going on that is really rewarding.” Those writers groups are following the same process that Native Voices did in its early days, putting writers, actors and directors into a room and letting things evolve from there.

Jean and Randy have also taken their work around the world. They have performed multiple times in Australia, where Aboriginal Theater is very big, and were a part of the Origins Festival in London, along with other indigenous theater companies from around the world.

“We were a part of a world indigenous theater conference in Brisbane,” says Jean. “We performed in front of a mostly aboriginal audience, and they loved the play. It was one of the best audiences we’ve ever had.”

Randy quickly adds, “It was a play that had a lot of insider humor. They didn’t understand all of the nuances, but they had the same jokes between nations and it was great.”

Native Voices has done much more than simply appeal to native peoples all over the globe. In 2005, they produced an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” set in the 17th-century American Southwest. Randy believes “that was when the LA theater community really embraced us and took notice of what we were doing. She was Spanish, he was Pueblo Indian. People really liked the production, and the critics came to it in a much bigger way.” Since then, the industry has been more and more accepting of Native American actors on stage and the large and small screens.

What has started here in Los Angeles is now spreading across the country. Places like the Public Theater in New York have dedicated Native theater initiatives in place. There is a new Alaskan Native Playwrights Project, and the La Jolla Playhouse hosts the Native Voices new play festival every year now.

“Every year we’re a part of their season,” notes Jean, “ and the last two years we’ve produced a play on their stage as a part of the festival.” People that have worked with Native Voices are now advancing Native theater in places like New Mexico, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

Some of the original people to be involved with Native Voices are still a part of the movement. Rob Caisley, the director of “The Frybread Queen,” which will have its world premiere at the Autry on March 12, was one of the actors in the first Native Voices Festival in 1994. “He played the ‘bad white guy,’ as a grad student at ISU,” remembers Jean. “So he’s been involved and interested and supportive of Native Voices for 18 years.”

“The Frybread Queen” is a new play by Muskogee Creek tribe member Carolyn Dunn. It runs March 12 through 27 at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry National Center, (323) 667-2000, ext. 354, or www.NativeVoicesattheAutry.org.

~David Gerhardt, Culture Spot LA