Don’t Feed the Indians, which opened November 3 at La MaMa’s Downstairs Theatre, is an examination of Native American character tropes and stereotypes through a series of vignettes. Some of the vignettes are comedic, taking on Pocahontas with a Keeping Up With the Kardashians-style reality show and recreating Native American carnival shows. Other segments veer into harsher realities, like a character recounting an academic accomplishment from his school days and the vicious sexual assault that followed.
The play is produced by La MaMa’s Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective and features an all Native American cast. One of the stars, Murielle Borst-Tarrant, is also the show’s writer and director, and her character often serves as the matriarch. She headlines the carnival-within-the-show with wit and warmth, but the other vignettes show off her range as an actor. In one segment, a stage production of Peter Pan is trying to be authentically Native American in casting their Tiger Lily, and Borst-Tarrant plays a nightmarish white feminist director. She struts on stage wearing a silky kimono and waves her oversized fan, all the while raving about her experience at Burning Man and making wildly racist generalizations about the Native American actors (and women of color in general). It is painfully familiar for actors who don’t fall into cis/straight/white/thin/male classifications, and it also walks the fine line of being specific to this life experience and relatable for anyone with a beating heart and a sense of right and wrong.
Borst-Tarrant is the soul of the show, but she isn’t carrying it alone. Every cast member is given chances to shine, and they bring these ideas and characters to life beautifully. I can imagine that this is an incredibly challenging play for the cast, considering that at several points, they are arguing their humanity and rights to live and thrive directly to the audience. They demanded that I look at these stereotypes and acknowledge how they limit Native American actors, rob young people of heroes and role models, and ultimately dehumanize them. That is bold. That is brave. It is shameful that it is necessary in 2017 to still be having these conversations because mainstream white culture hasn’t figured it out yet, but I am glad that Murielle Borst-Tarrant and La MaMa’s Safe Harbors Indigenous Collective are still willing to educate and make some great theatre along the way.
A note about audience participation: There is quite a bit of audience participation, even before the show begins. I have to believe this is intentional because for me, it was a reminder that real cultural change isn’t a spectator sport and requires action and often discomfort. It isn’t easy within theatre culture to call out racist attitudes in a Broadway show or to speak up when “one of the good ones” says something thoughtless. It isn’t popular to say that white actors should refuse a role because playing that character would be white-washing. There is less resistance to laughing at a joke when I know I shouldn’t laugh or placating a friend or family member who wants me to acknowledge that they’re not really racist. Audience participation makes me uncomfortable, but after Don’t Feed the Indians, I think I need more of this discomfort in my life.
Don’t Feed the Indians also stars John Scott Richardson, Henu Josephine Tarrant, Nic Billey, Danielle Soames, Kevin Tarrant, Travis Richardson, and George Stonefish. Musical direction by Kevin Tarrant, dramaturgy by Morgan Jenness, set design by Ann Mirjam Vaikla, lighting design by Cecilia Durbin, costume design by Sheldon Raymore, and music composed by Dawn Avery and Kevin Tarrant.
Don’t Feed the Indians: A Divine Comedy Pageant is playing at La MaMa’s Downstairs Theatre through November 19. Tickets are $25 and $20 for students and seniors, and they are available for purchase online at http://lamama.org or by calling 212-352-3101. A limited amount of $10 tickets are also available for each show.