This is the first of a two-part post that was originally published in earlier this month in THE BeZINE.
My first memory of being on stage was in grade school. I was an ultra-skinny kid with a pronounced Polio limp, earning me the nickname, Chester, a clear reference to the TV series, Gun smoke. It was a remarkable TV series and a truly dreadful nickname.
In about fourth grade my teacher had me learn a brief monologue which began, “How! Me big chief, What-A-Pot-AM-I.” When I presented the monologue to some five hundred gathered parents, it brought the house down. My parents were not amused, and I was humiliated, but we never really talked about it, and as far as I know, my parents did not lodge a protest with the principal.
The monologue was problematic for several reasons. First, it mocked me as a disabled child. Second, it outed my family as Native, an identity they tried for very good reasons to hide. Third, it was a filled with settler humor, with jokes that made light of the displacement of the Potawatomi tribe from their traditional home in Illinois.
I mostly forgot about that night until as a young I began seriously studying theatre. What I learned from that monologue and the audience’s response is that theatre has the power to do real harm to people, and often does. Too often the stage belongs to the dominant culture, and the words, gestures, and narratives employed on that stage are used to validate settler and ablist stories of superiority at the expense of people who experience every day degradation.
It was not until I was in college that I saw my first play that privileged others’ voices. I no longer remember the name of that play, but I do remember that it acknowledged the courage and resilience of folks I knew, Appalachian folks, and that it was pure magic. It’s been more than forty years since that night at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Granted, there probably were no black or explicitly Native stories being told, but some of the stories on stage that night were ours.
Later in my twenties I began telling stories and performing at festivals. Mostly I told tales from the British Isles and from Native America, stories I borrowed from books. For me, the stories were alive and saturated with the possibility of transformation. I noticed early on that for most performers the stories they told were just a vehicle for displaying their theatrical talents. I also noticed that when I tried to be theatrical, the stories I shared tended to fall flat, as though all the life had been taken from them.
It eventually dawned on me that telling traditional stories is problematic in several ways. For one thing, Native stories are traditionally the property of individuals, families, or clans, and one is supposed to ask permission to tell them; one must also acknowledge the holders of stories and their generosity. For another, traditional stories that are told simply come vibrantly alive in the present, whereas stories that are told theatrically become simple moments of entertainment.
After a while I found myself bored by most of the storytelling at festivals and simply stopped going. I also became bored with my storytelling, and dismayed by the focus on the teller rather than the tale. Now, I love a well told tale as much as the next person, and a fabulous telling will keep me energized for days, but way too often the spirit of the story gets lost in the telling.
It seems to me that what really matters in traditional stories is the spirit of the tale. I was, even as a kid, encouraged to look past the surface of stories and events, to try and ascertain the spirit that resides in the heart of them. I was taught that if the spirit of the story is nurtured, great healing might come to the listeners and the teller. Although I was not raised to identify as Native, I now know that teaching to be at the heart of Indigenous life, here in the Americas and around the world. That was , and remains, a good and powerful teaching.