Sayet, 31, responds to that question in “Where We Belong,” an autobiographical solo show that she wrote and stars in, directed by Mei Ann Teo. A filmed version of the play, produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library, is available to stream on demand beginning June14, through July 11.
The digital release follows the play’s 2019 live performance at Shakespeare’s Globe, in London. All in all, that’s a lot of theatrical enthusiasm for a work that, as Sayet says, via Zoom from Connecticut, “was never originally supposed to be a play.”
The text was initially simply her private attempt to process her fraught experience in a Shakespeare-focused PhD program in England, around the time of the Brexit vote. By then, she had already gravitated to directing and public discourse about the damaging effects of colonialism: Her early production of “The Tempest” mulled the idea of Caliban, an Indigenous character, reclaiming language from before Prospero arrived on the island. The concept resonated for Sayet: The Mohegan language, whose last fluent speaker died in 1908, holds deep personal meaning for her.
As “Where We Belong” recounts, Sayet felt alienated during her PhD studies, chafing at what she viewed as ignorant assumptions about her work and Native American culture, and distressed by general cluelessness about colonialism. The Brexit vote, underscoring the arbitrariness and the toll of borders and the costs of us-versus-them thinking, reinforced her unease. She found only limited solace at the London grave of Mahomet Weyonomon, a Mohegan leader who traveled to England in 1735 to seek the return of his tribe’s land and died while vainly awaiting justice from the British crown.
Sayet’s angst didn’t abate when she returned to North America, where her directorial credits have included new plays, Shakespeare (of course) and, at the Glimmerglass Festival in Upstate New York, a well-received staging of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
“When I came home, I didn’t feel like my feet landed on the ground they way they normally do. They didn’t feel rooted,” she recalls. To cope, she started writing, weaving into her personal story reflections on history, Mohegan culture, and the leveraging of Shakespeare as a tool for colonialism.
Curious how her thoughts might land in Britain, she answered a call for scripts that resulted in London’s Arcola Theatre slotting “Where We Belong” (with another performer) into a staged reading series.
Word spread, and Border Crossings’ Origins Festival, a U.K. celebration of global Indigenous arts and culture, featured the show. Part of that engagement was at Shakespeare’s Globe, the high-profile venue encompassing re-creations of Shakespearean playhouses.
Border Crossings artistic director Michael Walling appreciates Sayet’s play for “exposing the colonial assumptions that underpin British and White American theater, museums and universities.”
“But it does this with such grace, such clarity, such humor,” he adds, via email from London, “that even an audience at Shakespeare’s Globe was left full of gratitude, and open to new ways of seeing our shared histories.” (This year, the Origins Festival features the streaming version.)
The prospect of performing at the Globe terrified Sayet, who feared that “people were going to get mad at me for saying bad things about Shakespeare.”
“In my mind it was like going into a church and questioning God,” she says.
But the reception was warm. What really thrilled her, though, was the chance to speak the script’s occasional lines of Mohegan in a place where Shakespeare’s language is revered. “To be able to speak Mohegan in the Globe had so much significance,” she says.
Director Teo, attached to the play since 2018, remembers feeling “in the belly of the beast” during the Globe performance. After all, the venue is a shrine to a dramatist who’s long been a touchstone for an oppressive status quo.
“To be able speak truth to power, to be able to heal in the space of harm” was “really incredible,” Teo says.
Sayet thought the show’s journey would end at the Globe, but interest built stateside. The playwright says she’s pleased that preparation for the streaming version allowed her to develop the script further with input from other Native artists, including dramaturge Vera Starbard. “There are ways they can see inside my story that non-Natives would never be able to,” Sayet explained in an email follow-up. “I’m accountable to my tribe always, but I’m also accountable to other Native theater artists as a community.”
The recent fine tuning doesn’t mean “Where We Belong” has become a tidy package of answers.
“I don’t crave for people to watch this and leave educated about Native people,” Sayet says. “That’s not the goal. What I really want is for people to watch this and be able to ask themselves these questions about belonging and about place, and about the systems that we inhabit, and about what language is of value. That’s what I want people to go away with — and interrogate for themselves.”
Where We Belong
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library. woollymammoth.net.
Dates: June 14 to July 11.
Prices: $15.99 for advance tickets; $20.99 as of Monday.