It’s a pioneering theatrical effort with an unusual twist: a national tour of a solo show by a Native American artist, that requires each participating theater to sign an agreement to abolish the practice of “redface” and admit free anyone who identifies as a Native person.
Not only does “Where We Belong” follow an unusual route of engagements at one nonprofit theater company after another, it is also the first national tour to be organized by Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, which last year produced a digital version of the play. (The tour is produced in association with D.C.'s Folger Theatre, where it make its final stop in 2024; touring shows are usually produced by commercial entities.)
The project addresses several practical and values-driven issues facing the theater world as it struggles to emerge from the seismic upheavals of the pandemic shutdown. It binds far-flung companies looking for new models for joint offerings. And it brings to theatergoers across the country a play with an inclusive theme and a plan for accessibility for Indigenous people and other diverse audiences.
“This isn’t a one-off,” Maria Goyanes, Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director, said, about the tour’s long-term goals. “This is trying to get to a deeper community engagement with these folks.”
“Where We Belong” premiered for a brief stay at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2019. Sayet, whose Native heritage is Mohegan, wrote the autobiographical piece as a way of reconciling her feelings about Shakespeare and colonialism while she studied for an advanced degree in Britain. After Woolly’s subsequent streaming version, Goyanes encouraged Sayet to continue to develop the work, with Mei Ann Teo staying on as director. A trial run in October at Baltimore Center Stage was arranged to hone its possibilities for an extended live run.
“Maria really believed it was a play, that it worked as a play,” said Sayet, an assistant English professor at Arizona State University and executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. “It’s part of a social awakening that, going forward, we have to understand the Native stories about the land we are standing on.”
Sayet said she views herself far more as a director and catalyst for other artists than as a performer. But the idea of a tour of “Where We Belong” grew on her as she contemplated the ways she could build social activism into the venture. “I actually got interested in the tour once I started writing the ‘community accountability rider,’ ” she explained.
That enthusiasm evolved into a two-page document enumerating several conditions to which theaters had to consent. “If not already in existence, Presenter agrees to develop a plan to authentically engage in a continuous, long-term relationship with the Indigenous people whose land they occupy and/or the urban Indian/local Native population,” the agreement states. “It is important to both Madeline Sayet and Woolly Mammoth that this tour not become its own colonial force, but rather encourage current relationship between theaters and the Native peoples whose land the theater occupies.”
Among Sayet’s stipulations was the company’s “public acknowledgement of past instances of redface at the institution, and commitment to not present any programming in the future which includes redface” — that being the practice, now in wide disrepute, of non-Native actors playing Native parts, and sometimes darkening their skin for the roles.
The rider includes several other provisions, among them, the commitment to provide more work for Native artists; an event or theater lobby display created with the help of local tribes that uses Indigenous tribal languages; featuring the work of a local Native playwright or other artist via a stand-alone event; and the distribution of complimentary tickets for “Where We Belong” to “self-identified Native people, to include both single ticket buyers and larger groups.” For the larger groups, the theaters also must provide a travel subsidy.
“Every single theater company that produces the show has to agree to this value-based document,” Goyanes said in an interview.
Paige Price, artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company, said she was eager to be the launchpad for the tour. “Everyone knows Philadelphia for the American Revolution and the birthing of the country. But we don’t often talk about what happened here before. It’s a really rich subject,” she said, adding that the tour of a Native American play opens new vistas.
“It allows an artist like Madeline, who may not have the contacts, to be introduced to a whole lot of artistic directors,” Price continued. “And as the play speaks to people who aren’t in the old circles, it is a perfect example of learning about an artist who has something to say and gaining her a platform.”
As for agreeing to Sayet’s list of preconditions, Price said, “It was extensive enough that we had to take it to the board.” In the process, she added, the staff has been examining its nearly 50-year production history for possible examples of redface. “It’s an honest look at the way we’ve done theater,” she said. “Whether you did it or not is not the point. It’s owning things.”
Ultimately, the board agreed to Sayet’s terms. The next step is implementing them. As the tour advances throughout the year, the question remains how successfully the production attracts the sought-after audience members from among the 574 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States.
Price, for one, is uncertain, but eager to see. “It’s anyone’s guess,” she said, “how it’s going to play out.”
Where We Belong, written and performed by Madeline Sayet. Directed by Mei Ann Teo. First tour stop Apr. 15-May 8 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, 480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. 215-985-0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.