As a stage show captured on camera, “Where We Belong” strives for intimacy, pushing in on Sayet’s expressive face while she navigates an array of accents and personas. But there’s also a cinematic grandeur to Mei Ann Teo’s direction, which selectively pulls back to dwell on the expansiveness of Woolly’s empty space amid the pandemic and uses visual trickery to set Sayet’s soaring soliloquies among the clouds and cosmos.
There’s intention behind that aesthetically arresting flourish: In Mohegan, Sayet was named for a blackbird that flutters between the spirit world and the corporal realm. When Sayet recalls her transatlantic journeys in this autobiographical work, which premiered in 2019 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, she speaks of how her time in the sky has lent her plenty of opportunity for introspection.
The great-niece of the late Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a celebrated Mohegan medicine woman and anthropologist, Sayet once directed a production of “The Tempest” that pondered the idea of the Indigenous character Caliban reclaiming his language as the play’s central colonists departed his island. “Where We Belong” is framed around Sayet’s subsequent 2015 venture to London to pursue a doctorate in Shakespeare, and her sparring with a nation reluctant to concede or correct the damage of colonialism.
The result is a wrenching meditation on appropriation, cultural genocide and how to best honor one’s ancestry. En route to such reflections, Sayet cycles through anecdotes with pathos and a playful charm (even if the lack of an in-person audience undercuts the laughs). The story of a Stockholm border agent who quizzed Sayet about how she would’ve voted in the Brexit referendum raises heady questions about gatekeeping. Sayet’s trip to the British Museum, and her discovery of Indigenous remains for which the institution refused repatriation, is made all the more maddening by her deliciously smug depiction of an academic she met there. Her recollection of a nonnative person combating Indigenous stereotypes goes from fist pump to gut punch as Sayet broadly asks, “Could they have done this the whole time?”
The set — mounds of dirt evoking Mother Earth and versatile bars of fluorescent light — is a maximal feat of minimalist design. Jon Burklund’s fluid cinematography keeps pace with Sayet’s energy, though his editing is unnecessarily showy in spurts. When Erik Schilke’s ethereal score swells, Sayet’s passionate words land with even more weight.
In the performance’s final moments, Sayet confronts the institutions that cling to colonialism with a plea for empathy. “Our planet is so small,” she says. “When will we learn we’re all responsible for each other?” Amid a global pandemic, in which small concessions for the common good have sadly proved political, the sentiment is all the more striking. Like an ever-evolving language, Sayet’s text proves ripe for new interpretation.
Where We Belong, written and performed by Madeline Sayet. Directed by Mei Ann Teo. Production design, Hao Bai; costumes, Asa Benally; music and sound, Erik Schilke; photography direction and editing, Jon Burklund. 80 minutes. $21. Through July 11 at woollymammoth.net.