Finding Culture under Concrete: Urban Rez by Larissa FastHorse

By Vivian Pham

Cornerstone Theater Company’s production of Urban Rez was an uncomfortable experience from start to finish, because each line documented my and many others’ first encounter with the Native American experience. Akin to the nervous energy that comes from meeting somebody new, we fidgeted and shifted our feet on that cool April night as we wondered what each actor’s’ next moves would be, what the next scene in this unconventional play would unfold about the mysterious lives of modern-day Native Americans. Even while the majority of us have heard of Native Americans, and we celebrate Thanksgiving, the national holiday commemorating our relationship with our “first neighbors,” most of us don’t know much about the indigenous people of America. We merely see Native Americans as exotics who own casinos, receive full rides to American universities, and who look like the people featured in Disney’s “Pocahontas,” with long jet-black hair, copper-brown skin, and almond shaped eyes. Most importantly, we see them as being acclimated, never wondering if they have found redemption for all the lives and homeland they have lost, if they have finally found peace in their current circumstances. For most people, this single-minded conceptualization is just fine because most of us don’t interact with Native Americans on a daily basis. It is only on the rare occasions of community productions like Urban Rez that the genocide and complete erasure of  American Indians is acknowledged.

(I’m Native, But I’m Not . . .)

The opening ceremony gathered everyone in front of a small stage, and created the feeling of a giant get-together as actors and general attendees alike mingled and buzzed with excitement for the evening’s festivities. Actors, who were mixed in with the crowd and only distinguishable by their red Urban Rez jackets, were very hospitable, making room for general attendees to see what was going on stage, and only stepping up when it was their turn to recite a line. This was soon followed by the revelation that all of us here are part of one tribe–the Nicoleno tribe–and we have all faced the hardships of being mistaken for either “white, Mexican, or Filipino,” of being invisible even in the demographically diverse city of L.A. By immersing the general audience in an interactive play, where actors stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the audience, we were better able to contextualize and relate to the story in front of us.  However, when Kenny Ramos’s character Max is arrested for claiming his art as “tribal works,” when his community had been declared “extinct” by the U.S. government, the play began to change course. What had been a peaceful and coordinated crowd quickly began to divide, introducing an element of confusion and uncertainty, as different consequences of seeking government approval began to physically and metaphorically divide the characters. People gradually drifted to the most eye-catching scenes, focusing on whichever ones captured their attention. This alienation of the group was only made more evident through short, spontaneous dance sequences which interrupted characters’ speech and was used to signify scene changes and plot twists. In terms of Native American culture, where everything is seen as related, and where being banished from a camp or community is the “worst that could happen,” the divisiveness of this play takes on a whole greater meaning.

Overall, throughout the night, many different narratives were shared, creating a fragmented, yet still intertwined narrative. One girl, Helen spoke of her experience of  not having enough “Native blood” to receive membership status, despite the fact that her mother had one of the “elusive” membership cards stating her Native American heritage, and despite the fact that she had grown up on reservation land like many other “federally recognized” natives. As a result, as an adult deemed “not Native American” by the United States government, she has to be escorted onto reservation land by a member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs whenever she wants to “tour” her childhood home. A man named Waler commented on his father who became a jack-of-all-trades through government subsidizing, as he was paid to go to various vocational schools, becoming steadily wealthier through the government’s efforts to assimilate Native Americans. A woman, Tasha, had been kicked out of her tribe and yet still proudly identified herself as Native American, despite what could be construed as their betrayal of her. Another character, Toni, was a transgender (or two-spirit) woman who contributed to the story in many layers; as a member of the LGBTQ community, her story of seeking acceptance paralleled the Native American search for recognition as a sovereign people. As an individual whose current gender conflicts with the gender she was assigned at birth, the latter of which many believe is one’s definitive and fixed gender, she also represents the inner struggle within many Native people to assimilate to the majority while still remaining true to their own identities. As a final caveat, this woman fondly remembers her Nicoleno grandma for acknowledging her identity as a Native American and LGBTQ woman, foreshadowing the play’s real moral of acceptance and moving beyond outside recognition, beyond destructive federal policies.

From a nearly polar perspective, Wanda, an outsider whose costume consisted of what many think of as “traditional” American Indian garb–feathers and “deerskin,” brown leather–sought to be part of the Nicoleno tribe despite not having any association with the tribe. Through random events, she is at one point classified as “Native American,” despite lacking any ties to the community. Another character Neasha tearfully recollected the treatment of her ancestors’ bones as they were unearthed from their resting places in L.A., and tossed into the back of archeologists’ trucks like “bags of groceries,” hinting at one of the many ways Native Americans are discriminated against in today’s culture. There was also an interracial couple present in the play, a Native American women named Robie and a black man named Antoine, who ran into conflict when the woman wanted her future children to be considered Native American, and so refused to marry the man. As he was not Native American, their union would weaken her legal claims to her ancestors, forcing this character to decide between love and legal recognition. Lastly, there was the central issue between Max, who was attempting to fill out all the forms necessary for his tribe to gain federal recognition, as well as for him to escape his impending incarceration, and a shifty, cunning Uncle Sam-like government worker who continually evades questions about his responsibility in tribal matters by replying that “this is the way the American government does it.” He consistently changes the rules as the play goes on, much like the reality of applying for federal recognition, moving the “prize” just beyond reach each time Max comes close to completing his task.

The play climaxed as both audience members and actors gathered again around the original stage, but were as divided as ever in spirit. Under the arbitrary method Max had contrived to count tribal membership, audience members and actors were split into two groups: those who were and those who were no longer Nicoleno. With this final plot twist, we are taken back to the present after exploring so many ramifications of the legal decisions imposed by Uncle Sam. Through this method of reflecting on the past, and relearning history through the Native American perspective, the play argues how current Native American policies, while clustering many assimilated groups within one city, has failed to make reparations for the past. Though there is a system in place for federal recognition of American Indian tribes, in allowing a foreign third-party to have a final say in their identities, Native Americans are no more in charge of their identities than any other political refugee whose fate is continually at the mercy of others. In light of current and continuing tragedies, refugee treatment is as predominant an issue as ever, a fact which is affirmed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who state, “globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum” (Clemenco). Native American tribes, despite living in their mother country, must face similar tribulations and thus deserve equal consideration as these political refugees. Because their land has changed without their consent, they feel just as lost in a place where very few speaks their native tongue, where being Native American is simplified to a simple check box and a children’s film. Because they have experienced painful alienation, the apathetic ignorance of their neighbors and peers, the inhumane discrimination against their members, and cultural appropriation of their sacred artifacts, they can no longer return home.

Frankly, the play Urban Rez would be very disconcerting for anybody who expected it proceed like a typical theatrical production. For one thing, Urban Rez did not follow the normal conventions of a play at all; it was interactive, held outdoors amidst a cultural fair, had no intermission, consisted of multiple interwoven stories, and had random dance sequences in lieu of scene changes. Upon reflection, however, each choice was clearly a meaningful one, meant to display an “affecting honesty and inclusiveness that transcends the artifice of stagecraft” (Brandes). Embodying the real life of American Indians, there was no break in the play and thus no intermission. From the beginning, we were greeted and welcomed as members of the long-lost Nicoleno tribe, all the way until the end when we were forced to split up into either the “non-native” or the “native” group based on the arbitrary restrictions for membership and according to government policy.

By intermingling actor and attendee, the play also hinted at the learning experience the project gave to not only the audience, but also the actors themselves. For many of those involved in producing the play, this would be their first opportunity working alongside others of tribal descent. Jenny Marlowe, who played Robie in the production, remarks in an interview that “Exposure to people’s experiences and stories and backgrounds [has made her] feel very sensitized to things that [I] wasn’t even aware of before starting this process” (Clemenco). By encouraging growth both within the crew members as well as in the audience, the separation between behind- and in-front-of-the-scenes is diminished. This has the effect of making the production less of a didactic lecture and more of an open-ended discussion in which Native Americans could share the narrative of being foreigners in their own home, while learning alongside audience members what it means to come together as a community.   

The location itself at Kuruvungna Springs and at Hahamongna Park (Los Angeles State Historic Park) also held significance. It relates back to the title of the play “Urban Rez” which suggests that despite L.A.’s new trappings of concrete and skyscrapers and traffic which have caused it to be dubbed the “urban” destination, L.A. also encompasses the indigenous lands of many unrecognized American Indian tribes. In fact, L.A. is home to the second-largest population of Native Americans in the United States, and contains, to this day, street names with the Tongva/Gabrielino root word for “home” (Clemenco). By holding a play which allows outsiders to learn about the Native American experience in a place which no longer belonged to them by any public document, the cast reasserted their communities’ claims to the land. At the same time, they strengthened these claims through the presence of many witnesses: an audience of people from the local community as well as from vastly different histories who might have never heard of these struggles if it were not for this quaint, 70 minute segment of the Hunger Cycle. Through this “collaboration between the theater company, the playwright, and the community,” which included representation from over 15 tribal nations, this play not only appeased L.A.’s hunger for culture, but also began the process of fulfilling the Native American population’s hunger for recognition, for awareness, for solidarity (Arcos). For me and many others that night, the experience was akin to multi-segmented societies who had been blinded for years by distance, rewritten history, ignorance, and an overall lack of representation finally getting the chance to meet, to simply get to know one another.

While Urban Rez was but a single step in this continuing struggle for visibility and self-autonomy for Native Americans in the L.A. district and beyond, it was an unmistakably crucial step: the first real introduction between long-time neighbors, friends, colleagues, students, and members of diverse communities from all around the world. It was a recognition of the common purpose which ties us together as human beings–the search to find where we belong, whether that be performing on a stage, standing alongside a rising community, or sifting through miles of concrete for a buried culture, for ancestral lands of a once autonomous people. As playwright Larissa Fasthorse said of her play’s desired results/effects, Urban Rez was a precious reminder for many of us to simply “look at the person next to you and have empathy for them, where they come from and where they’re going” (Arcos).

Vivian Pham is a second-year undergraduate student at University of California-Los Angeles studying Communication Studies and Linguistics. Upon graduating, she hopes to use her degree to spread awareness of underserved communities. Ms. Pham is also currently involved with Southeast Asian Campus Learning, Education, and Retention Program (SEA CLEAR), the Vietnamese Student Union, and On That Note A Capella Group.

Works Cited:

Arcos, Betto. “‘Urban Rez’ Explores What It Means To Be Native American.” NPR. NPR, 30 Apr. 2016. Web. 20 May 2016.

Brandes, Philip. “With L.A. State Historic Park as Its Stage, Cornerstone Unfurls Tales of Native American Identity.” Los Angeles Times, 14 Apr. 2016. Web. 20 May 2016.

Clemenco, Sage Alia. “Urban Rez: Voices of Native American Actors.” Link Tv. N.p., 22 Apr. 2016. Web. 20 May 2016.

Fixico, Donald Lee. “Political Life, Professional Organization, Citizenship, Military Service, and Tribal Government.” Daily Life of Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. 73. Print.

“I’m Native, But I’m Not…” YouTube. BFMP, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 May 2016.

Lieberman Connecticut.

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